Before the ashes of Willi’s Wine Bar had cooled last October, restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark knew they faced a difficult decision — whether or not to rebuild their iconic Santa Rosa restaurant.
In the six months since the fires, it’s been an unrelenting question posed to the couple by friends, family, employees and loyal fans of the 16-year-old restaurant. Until two weeks ago, Stark said she wasn’t sure what the answer would be. But in late March, Terri posted a cryptic picture of the scorched Willi’s Wine Bar sign disassembled on the ground to her personal Facebook page. “What goes up, must come down, and go up again. Right?”
A flood of responses to the post overwhelmed the couple. “It was just huge, I don’t know how many hundreds of messages I got. People were calling our home phone and leaving voicemails,” she said.
Though she remained mum on the exact details of the post for more than a week, Stark has now confirmed that a new Willi’s Wine Bar will open in Santa Rosa next fall. They hope to open on Oct. 8, exactly one year since the wildfires began. The decision to reopen wasn’t an easy or quick one, she said.
“For a while it was ‘Oh poor us, Willi’s is gone’. I couldn’t envision a location that would be right for Willi’s to reopen, and we knew it would never be the same, but then Mark and I got kind of angry and decided we really weren’t done with Willi’s,” she said.
“We went through all the stages of death with the restaurant,” she said of the shock, denial, anger and finally acceptance that the first restaurant the couple had opened was really gone. “There was such an outpouring of support from people all over. People were sending checks, and it’s unbelievable the number of people who hand wrote letters about how special the restaurant was to them. I could only take so much of that. I said, ‘We have to bring it back’.”
Stark would not say where the new location would be, but confirmed that it would not be in their former Old Redwood Highway property and that they would be renovating an existing space. “Opportunities presented themselves,” she said.
It’s still hard for Stark to think about the quirky wine bar where she and Mark spent every day together when they opened in 2002. “It was our dream, me in the front of the house and him in the kitchen. That was the only one of our six restaurants where we were able to do that. We got money to open it from anyone who would answer the phone. It was kind of like a breakout role for an actor, a foundation that allowed us to continue forward and open six places,” she said. The Starks opened Willi’s Seafood in Healdsburg fifteen months later, then Monti’s, Stark’s Steak and Seafood, Bravas Bar de Tapas and most recently Bird and Bottle, which Terri said would be their last restaurant when it opened in 2015.
Staff displaced by the closure have been absorbed into the Stark’s other restaurants, but Terri said that many of the Willi’s staff had been at the restaurant for more than a decade and are ready to reunite. She also said that the restaurant was insured and the money they received after the fire will cover the cost of rebuilding. Nothing, however, from Willi’s survived the fire aside from two propane tanks from outdoor patio heaters, the sign and a special horseshoe that once hung over the back door.
“It was there when we moved into the space. it was never even really attached to the building,” said Stark. “We went over after the fire, and we were just walking through the debris. I didn’t know Mark was looking for it. But he picked it up and said, ‘Okay we can go now.’
“Willi’s was the perfect little nugget of a restaurant,” said Stark. “A new restaurant will never be the same, be we’re excited for Willi’s Part 2,” she said.
The Starks have also announced plans to open a Jewish-style deli called Grossmans Jewish Noshery in early 2019. The name pays homage to Terri’s heritage and maiden name, Gross. The couple have long wanted to create a delicatessen in the region inspired by those in New York that serve everything from chicken liver to bagels and schmears. They’ll make their own challah, rye bread, and bagels, but Stark calls it Jewish, since it won’t be strictly kosher. “I want to be able to have bacon and not get in trouble,” she said.