Willi’s Wine Bar is a restaurant that completely captures the magic of Sonoma County. Casual and low-key, it’s the sort of place where you can celebrate special occasions, or stop by on your own and enjoy a spectacular plate of food with a glass of vino and run into your neighbor. It was one of my go-to places for years, and the place where my youngest son, who was 12 at the time and mostly existed on pizza, first discovered he liked lamb chops and oysters. When the Old Redwood Highway location burned to the ground in the October 2017 firestorm, it was a great loss felt by the community. So when Willi’s reopened this summer in Town and Country shopping center, there was quite a buzz in Santa Rosa.
The new location is extensively renovated, and has a completely different vibe than the original Santa Rosa site. But as soon I walked through the front door and saw the waiters wearing t-shirts announcing “We’re Back!” and a familiar face from my gym and a neighbor, who waved to me from his seat at the bar, well, it was like coming home again.
On a Thursday evening at 6 o’clock, the place is packed. The sounds of laughter fill the air, the staff sings happy birthday to a guest, and intoxicating aromas are wafting from the kitchen. Alex and I are seated by a window. Our server for the evening is Emilio Rodriguez, who’s worked with the proprietors, Mark and Terri Stark, for 14 years. “They treat us like family,” says Rodriguez, who worked until close at the old location on the night of the firestorm. “There were a lot of good memories from there, but now we’re making new memories.”
We begin with drinks as we study the menu. Though I was planning to order a glass of Chardonnay, general manager Elizabeth Taylor suggested a flight instead. (Yes, that’s her real name and she succeeded in talking me into the Chardonnay flight, which featured two local wines and one French vino.) The menu is similar to what it once was and comfortingly familiar. We let Rodriguez lead the way, but two items were a given for me—the ahi tuna tartare with lemon, shiso and pine nuts and the curried crab tacos. The tartare is a Willi’s classic, and savory perfection, and the crab tacos are bright and fresh with the right touch of curry. We also enjoyed the scallop dumplings with pea shoots and topped with crispy pancetta, and I found the flight of wine was the perfect accompaniment to these small plates.
I may care about salads more than the average person, but I pay lots of attention to how greens are served. The salads at Willi’s seem effortlessly pulled together, but it takes skill to serve salads that are inventive and delicious, and where each ingredient tastes like itself on its own, only better. The arugula and endive salad with avocado and Manchego cheese and toasted almonds is everything a salad should be—refreshing and savory. And when it comes to dressing a salad properly, I’m somewhat of a fanatic in this area. The Meyer lemon-truffle vinaigrette is spectacular, not an afterthought. This is a plate of greens you can order as a meal, or share with the table.
For the main course, we share two long-time favorites from Willi’s that are beautifully plated and pair well together—the Moroccan-style lamb chops and the Tunisian roasted carrots. The lamb chops are earthy, pungent sweet-savory perfection. The preserved lemon couscous is the co-star that you may not notice right away, but it’s amazing on its own. The roasted carrots are not your mama’s cooked carrots. The Tunisian spice has an undeniably enticing aroma, and a deep and earthy flavor with a spicy kick.
Willi’s Wine Bar has always managed to embody the spirit of Wine Country, Sonoma County-style, where you can enjoy world-class vino, great craft beer, and international small plates. And now that they’ve reopened following one of the worst disasters in this city’s history, it embodies the spirit of community and the resilient, Sonoma Strong nature of the people who live here. Yes, indeed, Willi’s Wine Bar is open for business, again. As Santa Rosa continues to recover from the firestorm two years ago, it’s comforting to know Willi’s is back in the neighborhood.
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