Willi’s Wine Bar reopens in new Santa Rosa location 19 months after Tubbs fire

The roadhouse that launched Mark and Terri Stark’s restaurant chain reopens Thursday in Santa Rosa’s Town and Country shopping center, 5 miles from its former Larkfield location.|

Willi's Wine Bar

Address: 1415 Town and Country Drive, Santa Rosa

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Mondays, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays

For more information, visit starkrestaurants.com.

When Santa Rosa's iconic Willi's Wine Bar opened in 2002, owners Mark and Terri Stark described it as a place for “foie gras in flip-flops.” A year and a half after the flagship restaurant burned in the Tubbs fire, the restaurant reopens Thursday without the foie gras. Flip-flops, however, are still welcome.

“We're picking up where we left off,” Mark Stark said on Wednesday as onlookers pressed their faces against the restaurant's windows for a peek at the new 3,000-square-foot space in the Town and Country shopping center, less than 4 miles from their old location near Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

It was the most prominent Sonoma County restaurant destroyed in the fires and for the Starks had served as the roadhouse that launched their restaurant empire, which now includes six restaurants stretching from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg.

Willi's reopening stands as another benchmark in the fire recovery, a now 19-month period punctuated by loss, grief and persistence for thousands of fire survivors­ - the Starks, as business owners, among them.

On Wednesday, less than 24 hours left before opening day for Willi's, Mark Stark was slicing carrots and toting around strawberries in the gleaming new kitchen. Finishing anything was nearly impossible for the popular chef as friends and well-wishers streamed in to congratulate him and wish the restaurant success.

The site, which housed the former Carmen's Burger Bar and a cabinetry shop, is unrecognizable, with soaring ceilings, brass lighting, a 13-seat bar and a newly built kitchen. Stark said they demolished everything but the exterior walls and roof, creating an open floor plan. The renovation, he said, cost just under $2 million.

“We always go overboard. I guess we just like to save old buildings,” Stark said.

The menu and mission of the restaurant will remain true to the couple's original vision.

“The vibe is still a neighborhood gathering place,” Stark said. “There's no airs about it. This is the same place. The only difference is that 17 years after we opened the first Willi's, Terri and I don't have to do the tile and paint.”

Construction on the new Willi's began in November, and neighbors have been both curious and concerned about the opening of such a high-profile eatery in the quiet communities of Grace Tract, Junior College and the McDonald Historic District.

The restaurant will seat 71 people inside and 30 outside, said Terri Stark, who co-owns the restaurant chain in Sonoma County with Mark, her husband. It includes Stark's Steakhouse, Monti's, Stark's Steak and Seafood, Bravas, Bird and Bottle and Willi's Seafood. The Starks are also opening a Jewish-style deli in Railroad Square called Grossman's next fall.

Word of the opening began leaking out as the Starks hosted a handful of private events that popped up on social media last weekend, surrounded by a flurry of likes and positive comments. This week a sign on the front door announced that the first regular diners would be served at 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

“Most folks we know are really excited. It's a wonderful addition to the neighborhood,” said Lise Butier, who attended one of the preview events and lives near the restaurant. “It will be so nice to have something to walk to in the neighborhood. It elevates dining here for sure,” she said as she walked her dog past the restaurant on Wednesday. “We're coming tonight, because you can't beat the Starks,” said Butier.

“And the truffle fries,” said Cynthia Axell, who was walking with Butier.

Diane Dolan, who owns La Belle Fleur flower shop in the Town and Country Center, said the restaurant will be a boon for the area.

“This shopping center is a well-kept secret, and a new population of people coming to the restaurant is really going to revitalize it,” she said. There are 15 retail businesses in the two-block area surrounding Willi's, and include salons, exercise studios, a dry cleaner and Pacific Market, which is the largest business.

In the buildup to the opening, some residents and businesses expressed concerns about increased traffic and congested parking that the restaurant - well known as a bustling, waitlisted favorite before the fires - may bring.

“I'm excited for it,” said Michael Thompson, who lives nearby and was peering Wednesday through the glass into restaurant. “I think it's a positive for the area for sure. I think it will energize it. No matter how you look at it, there is limited parking, though,” he said.

“A lot of community folks come to Pacific Market to shop, and with all of these shops, you're never going to be able to park,” he said.

The restaurant will be open for lunch and dinner daily, and will not feature a happy hour, according to Mark Stark. The bar will serve just beer and wine, he said.

The Starks, who live within walking distance of the restaurant, said that they're sensitive to the neighborhood concerns.

“I've been watching, and there are some peak times, but overall, I think it will be fine. There are so many people - literally thousands - who can just walk here. Maybe we'll create a ‘Walk to Willi's' campaign,” Terri Stark said.

“Parking is an issue everywhere in the city, and parking at Willi's was always a nightmare in the past. People were walking on Redwood Highway in the dark without a sidewalk. We have a lot more spaces now than what we had,” she said.

Dolan, who has sold flowers in the shopping center for 35 years said she isn't surprised at some of the resistance. “I was here before Pacific Market and I've seen a lot of change. There's always a fear with change,” said Dolan. “Look, we're all grown-ups, We can deal. One way or another, we'll work it out,” she said.

Barbara Middleton, of La Coupe Sauvage salon, echoed the sentiment. “We just all have to work together. We're gonna have a lot of the same clients. We have to be patient with each other,” she said.

Inside the new restaurant, a lamp made out of an antique fire extinguisher lends a bit of humor to what's been an emotional journey for the Starks. Though almost nothing survived the fire, they have paid homage to the original Willi's with reprints of posters that hung inside and the ruby red paint in the bathrooms. A horseshoe pulled from the ashes has been hung over the bar.

The restaurant was among a number of businesses lost or damaged in the Larkfield area along Old Redwood Highway. Others included Cricklewood Steakhouse and parts of the Luther Burbank Center. The fire encircled the Larkfield shopping center, but all of the businesses were saved. Overall, the Tubbs fire destroyed 34 businesses in Santa Rosa, including a handful of restaurants.

The new Willi's menu will include favorites like tuna tartare, Moroccan lamb chops, mushroom soup shooters, goat cheese fritters, charcuterie and cheese platters, and Tunisian roasted carrots with mint. The wine list will also remain the same, with their signature wine flights.

“If it was really different, people would have been so disappointed,” said Terri Stark. She's looking forward to the return of their Tunisian carrots. Though the signature dish appeared on menus at some of their other restaurants in the interim, “they just weren't the same,” she said.

More than 70 percent of the original staff are returning to work at the restaurant, including Chef de Cuisine Matt Weinberger. After the fires, the Starks absorbed most of the staff into their other establishments.

“When they all walked in for orientation, it was like a family reunion,” said Mark Stark.

Willi's Wine Bar

Address: 1415 Town and Country Drive, Santa Rosa

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Mondays, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays

For more information, visit starkrestaurants.com.

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