At the end of September, The Food Network's Michael Symon filmed a "Burgers, Brews and Que" segment at Willie's Locally Known, shortly before the popular spot known for live music and barbecue closed its doors on N. Broadway.
The venue closed last week, and expects to re-open in a new Southland Drive location (in the former Show Me's space) in 2016. Some of the previously-scheduled music will be relocated to alternative venues, and some might be canceled.
Located in the former (iconic) Buffalo and Dad's location on Broadway, Willie's developed a strong local following for BBQ, burnt ends, Bluegrass and Americana (filling the void left by the former Lynagh's music club, and later, The Dame) with appearances by artists like Billy Joe Shaver, Alejandro Escovedo, and Dale Watson.
Owner Wilson Sebastian describes the roots of the club's origins, "When I was in the seventh grade my best friends and I formed a band. This band existed in many forms throughout the years, and still exists today actually, but in our years immediately after college we kind of hit our stride and starting getting really cool gigs opening for a lot of touring bands that would come through a place called The Dame. There was a guy in charge of The Dame at the time, Cole Skinner, and for whatever reason he liked us and gave us the opportunity to open for bands like The Avett Brothers, BR549, Alejandro Escovedo, Tim Easton and James McMurtry. Playing those shows, admittedly shows that were way out of our league, was something akin to a drug for me. When The Dame closed a short time later I made up my mind that if I was given the chance, I wanted to bring something like it back to Lexington. I guess Willie’s was really an attempt to recapture some of the wonderful experiences I had there, and that’s why the music side of what we do is so important to me. I chose to couple the music venue with a BBQ restaurant because at the time I didn’t think Lexington had any really good BBQ, and I also knew that a music venue only, without the support of a restaurant, would be very difficult to make work in Lexington. I had no experience in the restaurant business, I had never been so much as a bus boy before, and the only venue experience I had had was playing a few shows at a nice club, so when the day came and I signed lease, and I realized I had both a restaurant and a music venue, that was kind of a startling realization; but I was passionate about what I was doing and was willing to put in the work, and over time Willie’s just kept getting better and better, and it still is today."
The hard work all paid off with moments like the one he shared with Billy Joe Shaver earlier this year. He explains, "It’s always a really big deal for us when Billy Joe comes in and we have to do a whole lot of work from ticket pre-sales, extra ordering and prep, and staffing, so we can not only be ready for a packed house, but be ready for a packed house full of folks who paid a very high ticket price to see their icon." Everything went off "without a hitch," he says, adding, "after the show, when everything was returning to calm and the guests had mostly all left buzzing from what had been an amazing experience, our entire staff having performed flawlessly, I was sort of breathing a sigh of relief and starting to feel the exhaustion take hold when I felt a tap on my shoulder… It was the man himself, Billy Joe Shaver. He said to me, and I’ll never forget this, he said 'We don’t do this for the money. We never have. We do it for nights like this, thank you.' And then he shook my hand and walked out the door. I was completely startled and awestruck at the same time. It was at that moment where I felt like all of the blood sweat and tears, all of the insane risk and headaches involved with what we were trying to do, became worth it; and as I watched Billy Joe’s cowboy hat disappear behind the tinted glass of his bus door I thought to myself, you took the words right out of my mouth…thank you Billy Joe." Other than expanded space, the music is unlikely to change at the new venue on Southland. Asked to name three things he would rather do than listen to pop country, Sebastian replies, "Wow let me sum up Pop Country for you…There’s a guy, beckoning a girl to his pickup truck to take a ride to the river. That pretty much sums it up. Honestly I can’t believe that people I know to be otherwise respectable, intelligent people, actually listen to that stuff. These folks have to realize how absurd it is. It must be their guilty pleasure I guess — I'm not immune to those, I know about The Kardashians and whatnot. I guess I’d rather watch C-Span while getting a root canal before yoga class than listen to modern pop country… but that’s just my opinion of course."
On the restaurant side of the business, Sebastian admits he got forced a little out of his comfort zone when Chef Michael Symon and the Food Network visited for his show Burgers, Brew and ‘Que. He says, "While I’ve always enjoyed cooking, I must admit that when it comes to performing in a commercial kitchen environment, it is way, way out of my league...I’ve always depended on a talented kitchen staff with lots of experience to take care of the heavy lifting in the back of house; but when I was told by the producers at Food Network, that for this particular show they really like to feature the owner of the restaurant in the kitchen, and asked if that would be a problem…the answer to that question, the only thing standing between me and having my restaurant featured on national television show was, of course, 'absolutely not, no problem at all' (gulp). So I think my staff got a pretty good chuckle watching me sweat it out in front of the lights and cameras preparing our pork burger and what not, in front of one of America’s most famous chefs, all the time pretending like I did this stuff on a daily basis. We’ll have to see when the show airs if I was convincing or not I guess."
As for the motivation behind the move, he says, "while I’m intensely proud of what we accomplished on North Broadway, I was very inexperienced then. I look at it almost like a training period for my staff and me. On North Broadway we were free to experiment and figure out who we really were over time. We made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but on that scale, it was the kind of an environment where that was ok. It took a lot of time and experimentation to get to the product and experience that we offer today, and I feel like now it’s time to take what we can do to a larger location, one that has room for us to continue to grow and do some of the things that we’ve always wanted to do, but couldn’t" because of the limitations of the former space. Greer Companies (Coba Cocina, Cheddars, etc.) are investors in the new location and concept. Greer president, Lee Greer, says "I’ve been friends with Wilson for a long time, and we really like what he did with Willie’s. Most importantly, we love the food, and the Willie’s brand. The original Willie’s was a special place in a unique location that created a loyal following but we both agreed the concept needed more space to really become what it was really meant to be. It was time to renew the lease and service contracts or make a move. And, so, it happened just as they say, 'when one door closes, another door opens…'"
The new location at 286 Southland Drive is expected to open in 2016 — and with the larger venue comes a larger menu. Sebastian says, "under the direction of our talented new chef Tanner Stiff, we plan on offering almost all of our current menu items, but also adding more salad options for those looking for a lighter Willie’s option, Kentucky burgoo and Texas Chili, Nashville hot chicken, BBQ and spicy chicken wraps, and a strong oyster presence. We’re going to shuck oysters behind the bar at the new place, which is something I think no one else is doing in Lexington at the moment..."
Drink selections are expected to expand also. He says, "We have always focused on bourbons and craft beers behind our bar and at the new location we are expanding that further by adding an additional 14 taps and offering even more bourbon selections. We will have new craft cocktails as well, in addition to the funky and fun ones we already offer." Willie's will be in good company on Southland Drive, a thriving corridor already populated with longstanding local flavor like Winchell's, Good Foods Co-Op, and the Habitat ReStore.
Sebastian says, "We can’t wait to be part of what is a collection of great independently owned businesses there. Southland has a lot of soul, an established group of music oriented retail shops, and a great neighborhood surrounding it."
Greer adds, "We love this area and its rich history of being 'local.' Greer is all in on Southland (as you know from our upscale Hampton Inn and our retail center opening soon at the gateway / entrance). As Lexington’s original retail shopping destination, the Southland corridor boasts a long parade of independent and local operators with a passion for their business. That's Willie's. It's a fun place where guests have a great time... laughing, dancing, singing and talking to the band or the guy on the sound board. It’s an experience over just another dining option. Our group is excited for the ride. Willie's Locally Known was and still is a big hit without us so I encourage everyone to remind me to stay the hell out of the way and not screw it up!'"
This article also appears on pg. 11 of the November 2015 issue of Ace.Subscribe to the Ace e-dition for Lexington news, arts, culture, and entertainment, delivered to your inbox every Thursday morning.