I am so excited that the news of the return of Willi‘s Wine Bar is officially made public! I was on the opening staff of Willi‘s Wine Bar in 2002 – much like most of Sonoma County locals and visitors, that restaurant has had a special place in my heart for many, many years. Gatherings, a quick glass of wine and a bite to eat before or after a concert at Luther Burbank Center, celebrations, anniversaries and dates — Willi‘s Wine Bar is a treasure to wine country and we couldn’t be happier to hear that it’s returning. We’re ready for Willi‘s Part 2! Much love to Mark and Terri Stark! Check out this article by our good friend Heather Irwin of the Press Democrat.
Willi’s Wine Bar, the iconic restaurant that was leveled during the October wildfires, will rise again at the Town and Country Shopping Center in northeast Santa Rosa.
Stark Reality Restaurants, which owned the popular wine bar on Old Redwood Highway, has found a new home for Willi’s in the space currently occupied by Carmen’s Burger Bar in the quiet Grace Tract shopping center.
“Willi’s Wine Bar is where we met all the people that are now so important in our lives, including all of our guests. It was the foundation of all of our restaurants, and the opportunity to reopen makes it feel like we’re coming full circle. It’s bringing us back to our beginning,” owner Terri Stark said.
The Starks do not yet have a confirmed date to move in, but hope to open on Oct. 9, she said. The date has significance for Stark and her husband, Mark, marking the one-year anniversary of the firestorm that destroyed their first Sonoma County business. The couple now owns six restaurants from Healdsburg to Santa Rosa.
When talking about the restaurant, which sat for more than 16 years on Old Redwood Highway, Stark still gets misty. “It was the first restaurant Mark and I opened together. We worked there together every day,” she said.
Though much of the staff of Willi’s has been absorbed into the other restaurants, she’s eager for the longtime kitchen and front of house staff to reunite.
“Willi’s was the perfect little nugget of a restaurant,” Stark said. “A new restaurant will never be the same, but we’re excited for Willi’s Part 2,” she said.
The Starks took months to decide whether to rebuild Willi’s, known for its international small plate menu paired with its extensive lineup of wines. The question became a running narrative for both Mark and Terri Stark as fans of the restaurant and friends dogged the couple with questions about their plans.
In April, Terri Stark posted a picture on her personal Facebook page with a cryptic picture of the former Willi’s Wine Bar sign on the ground, saying, “What goes up, must come down, and go up again. Right?”
After a flood of responses, she confirmed that they had found a potential location but declined to reveal anything further, saying it was currently occupied by an existing restaurant and adding, “opportunities presented themselves.”
Carmen Campos, owner of the 9-year-old Carmen’s Burger Bar, confirmed that Willi’s planned to move into the space. She declined to elaborate about when she might close or move to a new location, adding that she was in discussions with the landlord about the restaurant’s future.
A second Carmen’s Burger Bar on Mark West Springs Road near the Luther Burbank Center will remain open — just blocks from the original Willi’s Wine Bar that was razed during the fires.
The Starks, however, are moving forward with plans for the location. “We will be doing an extensive remodel and adding additional space next door,” Terri Stark said.
The Terrace Way location has had a long history of restaurants, reaching back to Lisa Hemenway’s Bistro, Italian Affair and Chef Randy Lewis’ brief farm-to-table concept, Popina. It is in a shopping center that includes Pacific Market, Village Bakery and Sandy’s Take and Bake Pizza.
Willi’s isn’t the only Sonoma County restaurant planning to rebuild after the fires. In February, Sweet T’s restaurant owner Dennis Tussey announced he would be reopening in Windsor this summer after his Fountaingrove restaurant burned to the ground. Like the Starks, the restaurant’s faithful following supported a difficult decision to rebuild.
“It never entered our minds that we were done,” Tussey said. “Our only thought was that we needed to come back. We want to put our employees back to work.”