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​Restaurateur Finds Love After 50 Thanks to Fondue

Jeff Lawler was single … and then Darla walked into his café​​

jeff and darla lawler seated at the table they got engaged in and clinking wine glasses as they share fondue

Photographs by Bob Stefko

En español

At age 50, Jeff Lawler had never been married, despite meeting plenty of people through his Chicago restaurant, Geja's Café. The romantic fondue spot didn't work its magic for Lawler, now 59, until his future wife, Darla, now 55, walked in the door in 2012 These days the couple hopes the restaurant's romantic atmosphere will do the trick for others.

Darla Lawler: Nancy, a good friend in Columbus, Ohio, had worked at Jeff’s fondue restaurant in Chicago, and she was always telling me what a special place it was.​

Jeff Lawler: It’s a European sort of wine cellar, with amber lighting. We’re considered one of the most romantic restaurants in Chicago.​

Darla: When my teenage daughter and I traveled to Chicago in 2012, Nancy called Jeff and made us a reservation at the restaurant. Throughout our dinner, Jeff would come by and check on us and chat. At the end of the evening, he gave me a big hug and said, “Here’s a hug for Nancy.” But I pretended the hug was for me.​

Jeff: I was 50 years old, and I’d never been married, but I believed it would happen. The founder of the restaurant, John Davis, didn’t marry until he was 55.​

Darla: Nothing happened right away, because we were both in relationships. But a year later, we were both free, and Nancy found out I’d been intrigued by Jeff. She called him and got the ball rolling. Jeff and I started texting and talking and emailing, and eventually, he asked me if he could take me out to lunch. I thought he meant in Chicago — but no, he flew to Columbus. The meal lasted five hours. I barely got him back to the airport in time for his flight home.​​

Jeff: I’m a romantic guy. And I knew Darla was a special lady. When both of her daughters were accepted into colleges in Chicago in 2015, I asked them to move here as a family.​​

Darla: So, I sold my house and we moved that June. He made me wait for the proposal, though.​​

Jeff: I kept telling her I wasn’t ready. Part of it was that she had a ring of her father’s that she wanted to use for the stones in her engagement ring. I secretly removed the diamonds and replaced them with cubic zirconia while I had a ring designed. That December we planned a family dinner at the restaurant on a night it was closed. In my 22 years there, I had personally orchestrated over 500 couples getting engaged, but when it came to my own proposal, I didn’t realize how anxious I would be.​​

Darla: I was, like, “What is going on with you? You’re sweating.” He’s, like, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”​​

Jeff: Then I went to one knee.​​

Darla: Of course I said yes.​​

Jeff: They say you’ll know when you know, and that’s how it was for me. Maybe it seems like there were some delays, but for me it was perfect timing.

—As told to Bridgette Redman

jeff and darla lawler at their restaurant gejas cafe

Photographs by Bob Stefko

Cheese fondue for two

Ingredients​​

  • 6 ounces dry white wine​
  • ½ teaspoon kirschwasser brandy​
  • 6.5 ounces Swiss cheese, cubed
  • 1.5 ounces Gruyère cheese, shredded
  • ​¼ teaspoon nutmeg​¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • ​¼ teaspoon garlic powder​
  • Chunks of baguette, cubed apples, and grapes, for dipping​​

1. In a double boiler, heat wine until almost boiling. Add kirschwasser and let cook for 5 minutes.​

2. Add Swiss cheese; cook until cheese is soft. Add Gruyère, letting it melt and stirring it occasionally. Add nutmeg, white pepper and garlic powder. Stir until creamy.​

3. Cook mixture for at least another 30 minutes.​

4. Transfer to fondue pot and keep warm over a low flame. Serve with chunks of baguette, cubed apples and grapes.​

Nutrients per serving: 525 calories, 31g protein, 4g carbohydrates, 0g fiber, 36g fat, 109mg cholesterol, 329mg sodium​​​


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Jeff Lawler, 59, and Darla Lawler, 55, married in 2018. Together they own and operate Geja’s Cafe in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. ​​

Bridgette Redman is a contributing writer who covers visual and performing arts, and travel. She has written for The Chicago Reader, the Los Angeles Downtown News, and Encore Monthly.

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