The Willo: Good food, good company
March 5, 2013
On Nevada City's outskirts at the corner of State Highway 49 and Newtown Road sits an unpretentious California roadhouse named The Willo Steakhouse where seven nights a week locals and out-of-towners flock for the best steaks in town and drinks that are down right cheap.
High-end luxury sedans and "hillbilly trucks" sit side by side in the packed dirt parking lot of the establishment with the glowing neon signs that has become a local institution.
A growing number of 20- and 30-somethings have discovered the bar's mellow "campy" environment where conversation and jokes are welcome but bad behavior isn't.
"People feel comfortable here," said owner Mike Byrne.
A conversation piece in itself, the original World War II Quonset hut is still visible in the old bar hanging with a collection of signs devoted to beer, logging and loose women.
There are familiar tunes on the jukebox, a pool table and for a dime guests can try their hand at the 1950s-era shuffleboard.
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"Everyone here is friends and families. They always come back," said bartender and fourth-generation Nevada County resident Ernie Harries, as he poured a glass of Sierra Nevada pale ale.
"It's all local people. Everybody's friendly. It's actually like Cheers if you wanna know," said Diane Ogren, who was sipping Courvoisier on the rocks and visiting with friends before dinner. She's been coming to The Willo since first moving to Nevada County in 1971.
Beside her sat Johnny Ludwig, a retired mechanic, who drank Bud Light out of a can. He lives around the corner and has been a customer since 1973.
"It's a good place," he said.
In the dining room, many come faithfully each week to catch up with their neighbors or banter back and forth with servers that not only take an order, but cook it, too.
"This is how I give my heart and soul to people," said waitress Suzy Pitkin as she stoked the flames of the grill in the dining room.
Pitkin has worked at The Willo for 20 years and knows how her regular customers like their steaks.
"This one's special," she said, charring the outside of the steak for a customer who likes it medium rare and blackened on the outside.
"I put a secret ingredient in — TLC. I pride myself in knowing my customers so I can say, the usual?" she said as she turned halibut filets and garlic bread. When not working at The Willo, Pitkin is a minister.
One customer has faithfully come to The Willo every week for 30 years and likes to cook his own steak. "You can save 50 cents if you cook your own," said owner Nancy Wilson.
A link to the past
Longtime partners Wilson and Byrne purchased and took over The Willo about a decade ago.
Both real estate brokers from the Bay Area, the couple hunted for three years looking for a restaurant, hotel or B&B to buy in the foothills before settling on The Willo.
"We wanted something with a little history or legacy behind it," said Byrne.
Since she was a child, Wilson has vacationed at her father's cabin in Colfax and for years she and Byrne had eyed The Willo.
'Someday we're going to have to stop at that old beat-up redneck bar,' Wilson reflected.
They remember the first time they stopped and had a great steak dinner.
"I think most people come here because it's kind of unique and it's a memorable experience," said Byrne.
Despite having no former restaurant experience and naysayers who warned they wouldn't last, Byrne and Wilson bought The Willo.
Locals were apprehensive at first, fearing the newcomers would bring change.
Instead, Byrne and Wilson have made "improvements" over the years. They opened up the bar, returned windows where there had been boards up before, put in a new air conditioning unit, modern bathrooms and bought the lot next door to make room for more parking.
They managed to keep the rustic flavor and simple menu that everyone had come to love. On a busy Saturday night, they easily sell 150 dinners.
Steaks come from quality Midwest beef carefully aged in-house. There's three sizes of New Yorks to choose from and on Friday nights folks come out for ribeyes.
The Willo's champion steak eater was a fellow from Bristol, England, who liked the food so well he ate four 16-ounce steaks and two full dinners in one sitting.
"We comped him the last one. That sort of thing happens around here. One thing leads to another and you have a story," said Byrne.
Ribs are smoked every day and there is also halibut, catfish and smoked pork chops. Nothing is fancy but its all made fresh including the ranch beans and salad dressings.
Soon, in addition to the favorite house salad made with iceberg lettuce, a younger generation of customers can order a mixed spring greens salad. It was an update that took some careful consideration.
"We change things around here very, very slowly," said Byrne.
Dinner is finished with a scoop of ice cream for dessert.
In the summer months, The Willo hosts "Topless Fridays" a gathering of local convertible classic cars and every Super Bowl locals gather for a big potluck.
Besides the good food, for many, The Willo helps preserve history.
"There's so few California roadhouses left," said Byrne.
After World War II, roadhouses became a popular place for road trip weary travelers testing out their new automobiles. Places such as The Milk Farm in Dixon and Nut Tree in Vacaville became roadside attractions. Today, freeways have bypassed many old highways and fast food chains have replaced roadhouses.
In 1947, Bill Davis set up a surplus U.S. Army Quonset hut alongside Highway 49 as a watering hole for local miners and loggers. He later sold the operation to a couple known as Smokey and Smitty.
In 1963, Bob and Peggy Tucker bought the hut and named it, "Tuck's Hut." They added a grill pit and covered structure and started serving hamburgers with a beer for 60 cents. Today, Peggy Tucker, who lives down the street from The Willo, makes a point to stop by now and then.
In 1969, the Tuckers leased the property to Frank Williams who relocated his bar from Grass Valley when the freeway went in.
The funny spelling of The Willo is a combination of Williams' last name and his wife's first name, Lola.
Old Frank partnered with restaurant owner Veda Folden who, with her family, converted the covered structure into the current dining room and the steakhouse was born.
In 1976, Ken and Jeannie Hiebert bought The Willo from the Williams. Ken Hiebert operated The Willo for 26 years and continues to host and bartend.
Frank Williams' advice to Hiebert lingers still.
"Don't change a thing."
Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 530-265-9902.
For more history and a sample of the menu, visit http://thewillo.com.
Contact Laura Brown at 530-401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.