Many Villagers have dined at Katie Belle’s in Spanish Springs Town Square over the past 25-plus years. They’ve probably taken part in a line dance or two. And they’ve surely enjoyed acts like Rocky and the Rollers, Uncle Bob’s Rock Shop or Johnny Wild & The Delights.
But many Villagers probably have no idea about the background of the restaurant. Sure, they’ve read the fake history about Katie Belle’s Saloon and Dance Hall – one of many posted on buildings in Spanish Springs. But they all know that Katie Belle Van Patten and her husband, John Decker, didn’t really open the restaurant in 1851 with the promise of great food and “toe-tapping entertainment.”
Many residents have no idea that the Van Patten House, which includes Katie Belle’s, was one of the first buildings in Spanish Springs Town Square. It was built in the 1990s, as Villages Founder Harold Schwartz and his son, Developer H. Gary Morse, wanted a special place for residents to enjoy a tasty meal while shopping or enjoying the nightly entertainment in the Gazebo.
Many Villagers also probably don’t know that the facility was named after Schwartz’s mother. Nor are they aware that at one time it encompassed two stories and resembled a Western dance hall, with the upper section overlooking the downstairs stage and large dance floor.
But longtime Villagers will surely remember the days of the “salad wheel” being brought to their table. A large contraption that resembled a Western-style wagon wheel, the fixings were all there and patrons could just spin the wheel around to the items or dressing they wanted to add to their tasty salads.
Katie Belle’s also has an interesting bowling history. At one time, the restaurant shared a kitchen with McCall’s Tavern next door at Spanish Springs Lane. And when the Professional Bowlers Association held an outdoor, televised tournament in 2001 called The Villages Sun Bowl in Spanish Springs, many area VIPs watched the event live from Katie Belle’s balcony while enjoying appetizers provided by the restaurant.
In 2015, a loud buzz erupted as Villagers found out that changes were coming to Katie Belle’s. The for-residents-only second-floor Cattle Baron’s Restaurant was closing. And the facility was moving to the second floor only, with the bottom floor to be available for future retail customers.
That left some Villagers up in arms. Chico’s had already taken part of the space that once housed a street-level, quaint billiard room. And now that Katie Belle’s was becoming just one floor, some Villagers felt betrayed at the loss of the beloved facility they’d visited for years. And even though they were told it would be bigger and better, many had trouble envisioning that concept on just one floor.
In April 2015, demolition plans filed with the Town of Lady Lake offered a glimpse into the future of the popular facility. The wood dance floor was to be removed and salvaged, as was a bar top. The first floor was to be sectioned off for retail space and the second floor was to have a dining area with a stage, a separate bar area and space for a salad bar, all accessible by steps or an elevator.
As the facility remained closed and renovations moved forward, letters to the editor poured into Villages-News.com. One reader was fearful that the single-story version of Katie Belle’s would be like “anywhere USA” and lose the special appeal it had offered in the past. Another expressed dismay that readers’ opinions about Katie Belle’s weren’t sought out before the renovations started. And another one compared the renovation to “destroying one of our national treasures.”
By July 2015, the reconstruction of Katie Belle’s was well under way. The balconies were closed in with large windows, prompting some residents to discuss how the open-feeling at the facility would be lost. But the original New Orleans-style filigree designs and railings on the balconies were left in place, leading others to wonder how the façade was going to shake out.
Regular performers at the facility had to find other places to do their shows. Some turned up at such venues as the American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake and La Hacienda Center in The Villages. And others headed for various recreation center where shows were being held.
In December 2015, residents had the opportunity to tour the remodeled facility during an open house. They had a chance to look at the new restaurant and take a stroll through the dining area. And they were told they’d have to stay on a designated route.
Those tours prompted a letter from one reader who said that Katie Belle’s had lost its charm and just looked like an upscale restaurant. He complained about the size of the dance floor and said, “Too bad the Developer did not take some of the comments made and incorporate them into the new design.” And the fact that Katie Belle’s was no longer a private club for residents prompted him to write, “Sorry Mr. Developer, but you blew this one.”
Controversy also was the name of the game the following month when Katie Belle’s issued a list of most frequently asked questions about the newly remodeled venue. Residents soon found out that things were much different, from the menu to hours of operation to the fact that time limits were being placed on tables. In the “show” area of the facility, a “small” cover charge was going to be in place to “pay for the production of the show.” And residents were told that if they wanted to stay all night on Fridays and Saturdays, they’d have to purchase tickets for two shows. And on top of the cover charge, there would be a minimum bar purchase per show.
Today, Katie Belle’s is still a favorite among many Villagers. Many seem to enjoy taking guests there when they come in for visits. And even though some of the southern-most Villagers are a good distance away from the facility and probably won’t make the drive to eat there, the northern end of the community seems to have enough folks who still want to enjoy the facility they’ve come to love and count on over the years.