At 11:28 a.m., exactly two minutes before Willi’s Wine Bar was set to officially open, Chef Mark Stark threw the door open to a waiting crowd of 10 people at the Town & Country shopping center in Santa Rosa. “I guess we’re opening a little early,” he said as the first guests entered the 3,000 square foot dining room and bar marking the start of a new chapter in the restaurant’s history.
“It’s been exactly 550 days since I last saw you,” said Marynye Wagner as she and husband Wells, both of Santa Rosa, hugged Mark and Terri Stark. She showed the restaurateurs a receipt dated October 7, 2017, the day before the Tubbs fire destroyed their Larkfield restaurant.
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 fire, the restaurant has reopened without the foie gras. Flip-flops, however, are still welcome.
“We’re picking up where we left off,” said Mark Stark of 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.
“We simply refused to let the fire be the end of Willi’s,” said Terri Stark. “It didn’t really hit me until opening day. I was just in survival mode. We’re finally open, and it’s all flooding in,” she said. “Look, I was 32 when we opened Willi’s Wine Bar. Now, I’m not,” she said of the nearly 16 years that have passed since the couple opened the popular roadhouse on a shoestring budget.
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.
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 new Willi’s menu will include old favorites like tuna tartare, Moroccan lamb chops, mushroom soup shooters, goat cheese fritters, Journeyman Meats’ 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.
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 New ‘Hood
“The vibe is still a neighborhood gathering place,” Mark 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.”
“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. “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, Sandy’s Take and Bake, and Pacific Market, which is the largest business.
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.
During the staff lineup just before service, Mark said emotions were running high even among the usually stoic kitchen staff.
“The whole team was there, and I was telling them, ‘Let’s do what we do!’ and one of the chefs just started tearing up. I just had to walk away,” he said. When the Starks rehung the original Willi’s sign outside the new restaurant, both Mark and Terri said there were plenty of tears.
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.
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.
Willi’s Wine Bar is at 1415 Town and Country Dr, Santa Rosa, willis-wine-bar, 707-526-3096.