Willi’s Wine Bar: The Santa Rosa restaurant that would not die
When the Tubbs fire raged across the rugged ridges from Calistoga to Santa Rosa last October, one of the victims in its path was a funky, 1886 roadhouse on Old Redwood Highway that held a special place in the hearts of the people who had worked there for more than a decade.
Willi's Wine Bar had become a second home for a close family of employees, some of whom had toiled together ever since Mark and Terri Stark first opened the roadhouse doors in 2002.
It was the couple's first Sonoma County restaurant, launched with sweat equity in the former Orchard Inn after they refinanced the house and maxed out the credit cards. Despite opening five more successful restaurants, the roadhouse always remained the Starks' flagship, a Camelot of small-plates dining.
“What we loved about it was that it was in the middle of nowhere but in the middle of everywhere,” Terri said, sitting on the patio of Bird & the Bottle in Santa Rosa, their newest restaurant.
“I'm an emotional person. I drive by it on my way home now and cry.”
While Willi's will never come back as it was, the people and the food have survived and even thrived at the Starks' other restaurants over the past year.
Servers, bartenders and managers all found positions through a hospitality diaspora that ranges from Santa Rosa's Stark's Steakhouse to Healdsburg's Bravas. Out of more than 400 employees, Terri said, four lost their homes.
A few of the most popular Willi's dishes - such as the Moroccan Style BBQ Lamb Chops, the Tunisian Roasted Carrots and the Ahi Tuna Tartare - have been kept alive, popping up on menus from Willi's Seafood in Healdsburg to Monti's in Santa Rosa.
Meanwhile, plans are in the works to open a new Willi's Wine Bar in the Town & Country Shopping Center in Santa Rosa, hopefully by the end of the year, Terri said, but more realistically during the first quarter of 2019.
Terri, who helps design the spaces for all the restaurants, saved the iconic Willi's sign - the only thing that survived the inferno - and hopes to place the refurbished sign on an indoor wall at the new restaurant.
“We always had a lit sign that said ‘Willi's,' but we replaced it a year before the fire,” she said. “It still had the white ball, with ‘established 1886' on it.”
Anthony Viloria, who was assistant manager for Willi's Wine Bar at the time of the fire, started working there at age 20. Now 33, the experienced server and bartender has grown up at the restaurant - getting married, having kids, buying his first home. When he got into his car, he said, it would automatically drive to the roadhouse.
“My wife used to say, ‘All roads lead to Willi's Wine Bar,'?” he said. Now, when he cruises by the empty lot, it seems smaller to him with everything gone. His biggest loss, however, is all of the notes he had taken during the past 10 years, when he served as the wine buyer.
Now heading up his own winery start-up, Viloria hopes that the new incarnation of Willi's will create the same kind of familiar, communal energy, with a big emphasis on sharing plates and interesting wine flights.
What made Willi's Wine Bar unique, he said, was that it attracted people who loved food and wine and were eager to learn more. That also raised the bar for the employees working there.
“Over the years, the guests really had confidence in the staff to guide them through the experience,” he said. “And the staff had confidence, so they took ownership of everything.”
The restaurant also had its own identity, centered around the wine bar located at the heart of the old house. There were no trendy cocktails, just some unusual Italian varietals that would raise customer's eyebrows now and then.
“You could order 60-plus wines by the glass,” he said. “Everyone who walked through the door wanted to drink wine and try all these different flights.”
Once you stepped inside the cozy roadhouse, space was tight, but that only seemed to bring the staff and their customers closer. Outdoors, the angular patio with its privacy-lending hedge and gurgling fountain would transport diners to another world.
“You felt like you were in the middle of nowhere,” Viloria said. “It was magic.”
Home, work both gone
The company's director of operations, Ulrike vom Stein, was working closely with Viloria as the Willi's manager at the time of the October fires. An old friend of Terri's from their catering days in Palo Alto, vom Stein started working at Willi's back in 2003, when the concept of small-plates dining was still a foreign concept.
“People didn't know what tapas were ... and some people thought we were Willie Bird's,” she recalled. “But when people tried it, they loved it.”
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