By Jeff Louderback
On a recent warm and sunny Saturday, Little River Bar & Grill bustles with activity.
A band entertains an enthusiastic audience in the Beer Garden while families shoot pool and play darts in the game room. The seats around the bar are occupied, and servers deliver orders to the full house of tables on the covered patio.
This is what Little River’s owners – Dale and Tonya Lusby, and Crystal Stewart – envisioned when they bought the shuttered establishment in Oregonia. They faced and overcame an array of unanticipated challenges to get here, and the result is an iconic venue that draws families, couples, and groups from all over southwest Ohio to this tiny hamlet located between Waynesville and Lebanon.
Once a stop on the Little Miami Railroad, Oregonia was a thriving village when Little River Bar & Grill’s original building was constructed in the 1870s by the Sherwood family. Around 40 years ago, a restaurant opened here by Wilson Sexton, who named it The Sexton House before it was changed to The Freeport Inn. When the Little Miami Scenic Trail debuted in 1993, the business was renamed The Little River Café. Dale, Tonya and Crystal bought it in 2019, fully refurbished the interior and exterior, and called the restaurant Little River Bar & Grill to retain its history.
“We live near the restaurant and were regulars for years before it was available for sale,” Tonya said. “When we signed the papers to buy it, we were excited about our vision for what we wanted Little River to become. It’s rewarding to see that vision as a reality every day we open our doors.”
Situated on the east shore of the Little Miami River, Oregonia is a popular destination for motorcyclists and bicyclists. Little River Bar & Grill was known as a biker’s gathering spot and it remains that, but the new owners have expanded the space into a family-friendly venue with live music, karaoke, charity fundraisers, and birthday parties.
The business is a family-centered venture as Dale and Tonya are husband and wife, Crystal is Dale’s sister, and manager, Annette Parnell, is Crystal’s mother.
When they bought Little River, they enclosed the patio with folding garage-door style windows that fold out and open during warmer weather, installed a gas fireplace and heaters for use during the winter, added 19 tables to the patio, and transformed the former general store into a game room with pool tables, dart boards, and a juke box.
They opened on March 4, 2020, and within a week, they were forced to close the dining room and operate solely through carry-out and delivery. When restaurants were allowed to re-open, Little River attracted Ohioans from across the state who appreciated the owners’ commitment to honoring mask exemptions.
“The response from the community was positive, and we are grateful for the support we received from the beginning,” Crystal said. “We feel that if we were able to succeed during one of the most difficult years imaginable, we can overcome whatever challenge we face.”
One of the most daunting challenges, the owners agree, is that Oregonia is not located in a highly populated area. It is only five miles northeast of Lebanon and six miles south of Waynesville, but the perception is that the venue is out of the way along a winding, rural road. After all, every October, the “Devils Staircase” motorcycle hill climb is held on a hill just south of Little River Bar & Grill.
“We’ve made the restaurant into a place where motorcyclists from all over the region, bicyclists along the trail, families, couples on date night, and groups gathering for parties and events are welcomed,” Tonya said. “People arrive in all kinds of transportation, from cars and motorcycles to bicycles, canoes, and kayaks.
“We also have a variety of charity fundraising events to benefit organizations and attract guests who otherwise might not have known we are here,” Tonya added. “We’re blessed that first-time customers often become repeat customers.”
Meticulous about food quality, Little River’s owners have created a menu that appeals to different palates with names that reflect the village’s history. Freeport Fries and The Sexton Sampler (a choice of four options) are among the appetizers. Among the selection of burgers include the Bissman (named after the Realtor who represented the owners; and topped with an egg, bacon, and peanut butter), the signature Little River burger (tartar sauce, lettuce, pickle, and onion), and the Sherwood (blackened seasoning, and bleu cheese sauce). Pizza, calzones, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and hoagies are popular – especially the Little River Racer (turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and mayo) for cyclists.