Look Who’s Back… Where ya been Willie’s?
Over the past few months, something has been missing here in Lexington. Things have been a bit quieter and the smell of hickory smoke over north Broadway has faded. After first hearing the news that Willie’s, the beloved music hall and bar-b-cue haven, was closing its doors…many a non-habanero induced tear was shed. Their welcoming atmosphere, drool-worthy burnt ends and incredible live music soon became a go-to for locals and tourists alike. Luckily for us all, this success and fanfare led owner Wilson Sebastian to build bigger doors allowing even larger crowds to experience the musically delicious vibe that is the new Willie’s Locally Known.
Owner Wilson Sebastian grew up an aspiring musician and at an early age formed his band, The D Hawks. Originally a tribute band to revered alt-country-rock troupe The Jayhawks, the band found their own songs after a post-college reunion. They would get a few cool breaks opening for some amazing acts at the sorely missed Lexington music hall, The Dame. Sebastian’s experiences there and his understanding of the dire need for another place like it gave him the idea to create Willie’s. With no experience in running a music venue or restaurant, he decided to combine both. Soon he and his staff would learn through trial by fire as they faced the madness that is the service industry. After a few years of making some of the region’s best BBQ, a feature on the Food Network’s Burgers, Brew and ‘Que and hosting the likes of Alejandro Escovedo, Billy Joe Shaver, and the region’s top local acts… Willie’s became a staple.
With the memory lane trip concluded, let’s delve in to what the new Willie’s will offer… After a few years of getting their feet wet and truly learning the ropes of the live music and restaurant businesses, Sebastian and crew felt they had outgrown their first home…and the nightly packed house public agreed. A larger space was needed and was found at the former Show Me’s on the now thriving Southland Drive. With many new locally owned businesses and more on the way, the area is quickly becoming one of our city’s hotspots. I had a chance to sit down with the owner and see the new place in its final stage of construction.
Partnering with Greer Companies, (Coba Cocina, Cheddar’s), the team have spared no expense on the complete renovation of this building. Being truly Kentucky proud, Sebastian and crew have sourced local barn woods to cover the walls and floors and our state’s shape is prominently placed throughout the venue, even on their logo. Upon entering, I first noticed the long 30’ bar stretching across my field of view. Rustic white oak boards coat the wall behind creating a nice sense of separation. Above the bar is an overhang with small hanging retro lights. The front of the overhang is painted a familiar color of red, an homage to The Dame. “The Dame is where I caught my bug for live music,” Sebastian explains. This red accent covers the adjacent overhang as well hovering just above the hand-made and beautifully stained high sitting wooden bench that runs the entire length of the building in front of its wall of windows. Hanging about two feet from the ceiling are large wooden boxes filled with acoustic insulation and encircled with light bulbs. These aren’t just cool design touches but are actually acoustic baffles that will absorb unpleasant sound frequencies providing a more controlled and clean listening experience. Speaking of the music, the 20’x10’ stage is at the far right side of the building. On the back wall, a mural of the American flag is created by using dark and white oak boards. Two sets of two high-end QSC line array loudspeakers hang above each side of the stage and will be ran through their new digital Midas M32 mixing console, another fine piece. This system, along with the acoustic treatments added to the building, will ensure quality sound for the audience and performers.
Willie’s menu will also see upgrades, but fear not, all of their original items have stayed intact. With the addition of new head chef Tanner Stiff, a lot of cool new plates and features have been added. Formerly the sous chef at Jonathan’s and a BBQ master, Stiff will now head the kitchen and add his own flavors and stylings. Being known for BBQ but not wanting to be pigeonholed, they prefer to describe their fare as “eclectic soul food.” With smoked meats still the focus, (you’ll be able to see one of the large smokers in action on the back patio), new salads have been added for the lighter side as well as vegetarian plates such as smoked tofu. They’ll also be curing their own bacon in-house and adding a bacon flight app with four of their own custom sauces which will be bottled and available for purchase. You’ll also find house cured steaks wrapped with bacon, bone-in rib-eye and salmon on the new menu. A very cool new feature will be a raw bar behind the actual bar where patrons can have oysters shucked in front of their eyes while enjoying their drink and watching the game. Speaking of that, there will be numerous 75” TVs throughout the venue and four will be stacked together in the back room forming a huge wall of screens. The many local and exotic craft beers and bourbons will increase as well and, staying Kentucky proud, they also plan to offer locally sourced specials throughout the seasons. Needless to say, the Willie’s team has had little sleep over the past few months.
Revitalizing Lexington’s music scene was always the main motivation to open Willie’s in the first place. His love of and passion for music is what drove Sebastian to dive into this business head first. In the early days, he would often allow the performing bands to stay at his home and would even provide groceries so they would be fed. He feels hospitality towards the artists is a key reason that bands want to return to Willie’s and has built their reputation in the music community as a great place to play. “Willie’s is all about the music, but it’s also all about the food. Can a place be both? We think so.” The scores of music buffs and foodies that continuously packed the original location seem to agree. With the returns of artists such as Billy Joe Shaver, Alejandro Escovedo, Unknown Hinson and scores of others already booked, the music buffs will be as happy as the foodies. Also, the shows at Willie’s are all ages. So for parents young and old(er), it’s a blessing.
Fun and funkiness is how Sebastian describes the atmosphere at Willie’s. When asked about a grand opening soiree, he kept that tone. “As far as we’re concerned, back to the funky vibe, we want to keep it as quiet as possible. It’s not a secret or mystery but everybody wants me to dig up Elvis for this big opening and we’re not even sure when the construction is gonna be fully finished.” One thing he is sure of is that whether or not every nail is hammered or bathroom painted, their soft opening will definitely begin on Thursday March 17 when they will host a three-night run beginning with The David Mayfield Parade. Americana at its finest, Sebastian laid it out, “Come hell or high water, we’ll be open for that show.”
Kentucky weather in March? Could be either.
This article also appears on page 11 of the March 2016 issue of Ace.
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