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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.”

The night of the fire, she woke up in her rental cottage north of Hopper Avenue to the sound of tree branches scraping her roof and fire in her backyard. She woke up her neighbors in her small cul-de-sac and fled in her car, evacuating to Mark and Terri’s home close to downtown Santa Rosa. At first, she thought the fire in her backyard was isolated, and they would all go back to sleep.

“When I left my house, Arby’s and McDonald’s were still there, and Kmart was still there,” she said. “I stopped at Kmart to tell the firemen my house was on fire. I had my pajamas on, my purse and my glasses. That’s all.”

Her illusion was shattered when the alarm company called the Starks to let them know that the alarms were going off at Willi’s. Vom Stein looked at her phone and saw a photo of Willi’s Wine Bar in flames.

“It was horrible,” she recalled. “The regulars, the special occasions — all gone. It was such a special place because it was a cool, old funky house ... it felt special. I think that’s what drew people to it.”

One of the regular customers at Willi’s — a female EMT — was evacuating patients from Sutter that night. When she drove by Willi’s, she felt the heat of the blaze and her heart sank. She called her boyfriend to tell him that their restaurant was no more.

“Willi’s was her place,” Terri said. “She told me, ‘The enormity of the fire hit me ... when I realized that Willi’s was gone.’ ”

Willi’s was also sacred ground to Jacquelyn Nicholson of Santa Rosa, who would often show up Friday after work, before the dinner crowd arrived, and have a glass of Schramsberg bubbly and some pork belly pot stickers. A trained sommelier, she even had her own seat at the bar — Bar 11 — where she enjoyed chatting about wine with Viloria.

“Willi’s was literally the very first restaurant we went to as a family after we moved to California in 2014,” Nicholson said. “It’s happy memories.” Nicholson didn’t find out that Willi’s was gone until Monday morning, after her family evacuated their home in Larkfield/Wikiup the night of the fire (their home survived).

“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “Willi’s meant so much to us because we came to know the staff like family. We hugged those people.”

About a month after the fire, Nicholson started searching out Willi’s staff members at the Stark’s other restaurants. Many of the employees had gone to Bird & The Bottle and Willi’s Seafood because the small-plates format was familiar. Others ended up at Stark’s Steakhouse and Monti’s. She started making the rounds, visiting one restaurant a week.

“These were people who cared a lot about each other and their regular customers in a really beautiful way,” she said. “It was comforting to see them, and we found solace in spending time with them.”

Fish out of water

The Friday after the fire, Terri called a meeting of all 52 of Willi’s employees. Everyone filled out a form requesting a transfer to another restaurant. She was able to match 46 out of the 52 requests.

Although grateful to have a job, the transition has been a difficult one for the Willi’s refugees, since each restaurant has its own culture and personality.

“Willi’s was like our second home,” von Stein explained. “You knew everything about it ... at a different spot, with different food and clientele, it’s like you’re visiting a foreign country.”

“It’s been like foster care,” Terri said. “They were fish out of water.”

Viloria went to Stark’s Steakhouse, helping out with paperwork for a few weeks, then stepping into the position of general manager on Nov. 1. Since winter is the busiest time of year for the steakhouse, he found himself on a stiff learning curve, which helped keep his mindoccupied.

Meanwhile, the Starks were being besieged by customer requests to bring Willi’s back. With the Willi’s staff at loose ends — all missing each other and wanting to work together again — they began to consider that option.

“About six months after the fire — when sadness turned to anger — we were like, ‘This CAN’T be the end of Willi’s,’ ” Terri said. “The staff was our main motivation.”

By May, Stark Reality Restaurants had announced that it had found a new home for Willi’s in the space occupied by Carmen’s Burger Bar in the Town & Country Shopping Center.

With architect Nat Bisbee of Bisbee Architecture + Design in place, the restaurant is being redesigned top to bottom and will expand into the corner space, where the bar will be located. There will be 70 seats inside and 30 seats outside, Terri said, with a blended indoor-outdoor ambiance. And Chef/Owner Mark Stark will get a bigger kitchen — a shiny, new European cooking suite located at the heart of the restaurant.

“We’re moving everything, but the space has really great bones,” Terri said. “It’s got beamed ceilings, and it’s solid, built in the 1950s.”

Although many details remain unknown — who and what dishes will return to Willi’s — the staff is already getting excited about the resurrection of their old restaurant home.

“Emotionally, it’s hard for me to imagine going in and just being a guest,” Viloria said. “I hope to facilitate the wine program.”

“We mourned it, and now we’re ready for a new start,” vom Stein said. “A year out, people are ready to see new life for Willi’s.”

____

The following Willi’s Wine Bar recipes are from Mark Stark of Stark Reality Restaurants. The Tunisian Roasted Carrots have been served at Bird & the Bottle and Monti’s for the past year.

Tunisian Roasted Carrots with Toasted Pine Nuts, Mint, Olives and Feta

Serves 6 to 8 as tapas

2 pounds baby rainbow carrots, scrubbed, tops removed

— Olive oil, to coat

— Salt and white pepper, to taste

¼ cup honey

½ tablespoon cinnamon

½ table cardamom

1 small orange

3 tablespoons butter

½ cup mixed olives, whole

2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

½ bunch mint leaves

1 tablespoons lemon juice

½ cup crumbled feta

Toss the carrots with oil, salt, pepper, honey, cinnamon and cardamom. Place in a roasting pan, or baking dish just big enough to hold in one layer. Cut the orange in half, then squeeze the juice over the carrots, then add the orange halves into the pan with the carrots. Cover with foil and roast until just tender, about 25 minutes.

Remove the foil and cool the carrots until ready to serve. This can be done the day before and refrigerated.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. When ready to serve, melt the butter in a large pan to fit the carrots in a shallow layer. When the butter just starts to brown, add the carrots. Place in a 400-degree oven and cook until warmed through and the carrots are slightly browned. Remove pan from oven and toss the olives, pine nuts, mint and lemon juice into pan, then toss with the carrots. Place the carrots on a serving dish and sprinkle with the crumbled feta.

____

Customers can now order the Willi’s Wine Bar Tuna Tartare at Monti’s in Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village.

Willi’s Wine Bar Tuna Tartare

Serves 6 to 8 as tapas

For Tartare Dressing:

2/3 cups lemon juice

3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

½ cups gluten-free soy sauce

2 tablespoons sambal chile paste

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced

½ teaspoons garlic, minced

½ cup sesame oil

For Tartare:

1 pound fresh, sushi-grade ahi tuna, ¼-inch dice

4 minced green onions

¼ cup toasted pine nuts

Tartare dressing, to taste (recipe above)

1 tablespoon tobiko (flying fish roe)

1 tablespoon shiso leaf, minced

1 avocado, fine dice

¼ cup crème fraiche

— Salt and pepper, to taste

— Toasted baguette crostini or good crackers

For tartare dressing: Whisk together all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl.

For tartare: Combine the ahi tuna, tartare dressing (to taste), green onion, pine nuts, tobiko, shiso and avocado and season with salt and pepper.

Smear the crème fraiche onto a plate of your choice. Place the tuna on top of the creme fraiche and garnish with more minced scallion, tobiko or finely sliced shiso leaf.

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The Willi’s Wine Bar Moroccan-style BBQ’d Lamb Chops is being served at Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg. The lamp chops need to marinate for four hours or overnight.

Moroccan Style BBQ’d Lamb Chops with Mint Chutney and Preserved Lemon Couscous

Serves 8 (with extra BBQ sauce)

8 double-cut lamb chops

For Mint Chutney:

1 cup mint leaves

6 green onions, chopped

3 tablespoons parsley leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon curry powder

1 tablespoons lemon juice

1 garlic clove, chopped

½ cup olive oil

For Moroccan BBQ Sauce:

1 ¼ cups honey

½ cup rice wine vinegar

½ cup ketchup

½ cup soy sauce

3/4 cup lemon juice

1 cinnamon stick, broken up

2 star anise

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1 ½ teaspoons cardamom seeds

1/2 teaspoon chili flakes

1½ teaspoons black peppercorns

1½ teaspoons dried lavender

½ teaspoon fresh ginger, chopped

½ teaspoon whole cloves

½ bunch cilantro

½ teaspoon salt

For Preserved Lemon Couscous Salad:

2 cups couscous

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 cup orange juice

1 cup water

½ cup golden raisins

½ preserved lemon, cleaned and minced

¼ cup toasted slivered almonds

1 bunch green onions, sliced

Marinating the meat: Place all mint chutney ingredients in a blender with the olive oil and puree until smooth. Toss the lamb chops with just enough chutney to coat and marinate for four hours or overnight. Save the remainder of the mint chutney to use later.

Moroccan BBQ Sauce: Place all ingredients in a sauce pot and simmer on medium heat until the sauce is reduced to the consistency of a light glaze. Strain and cool.

Couscous Salad: Place dry couscous in a bowl and add the olive oil. Mix the couscous until it is coated with the oil.

Bring the orange juice and the water to a boil. Season the liquid with salt and pepper. Pour the hot liquid over the couscous, add the raisins and preserved lemon, then stir once. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until couscous has absorbed all the liquid.

Remove plastic and fluff the couscous. Check seasoning and adjust if necessary.

To finish the dish: Season lamb chops with salt and pepper. Grill to desired doneness over medium hot grill, or sear in a hot, cast-iron pan on both sides and finish in a 350-degree oven.

While chops are cooking, toss toasted almonds and sliced green onions into the couscous. Add a little fresh orange juice and more extra virgin olive oil if salad seems dry. Place couscous salad in the center of a serving platter.

Arrange the chops around couscous, drizzle with Moroccan BBQ sauce and remaining mint chutney. Any leftover BBQ sauce will keep in the refrigerator for one month.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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