Roadhouse restaurant keeps raising the steaks
Nevada City Advocate
Most mornings at the Willo you can find Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson, along with Nancy’s brother, Pete, working with their staff to hand-cut tender steaks and prepare for the dinner hour – to the tune of about 500 steaks served per week.
The venerable roadhouse just outside Nevada City is well known for a top-notch steak and is now celebrating 50 years of serving the community – and over a million steak dinners.
Originally, a World War II Quonset hut was moved to the site in 1947 and named Bill Davis’ Hut, and the Willo Steakhouse came into being in 1969 when Frank Williams and Veda Folden opened the dining room adjacent to the bar.
A burger and a beer, the Gold Miner’s Special, cost 60 cents and the original sign for it can still be seen in the dining room. “When we were cleaning up outside, we even found the original Bill Davis sign,” Wilson said.
The banquet room opened in 1973, and in 1976 Ken and Jeanne Hiebert combined the dining and bar operations. Ken still puts in some hours each week with current owners Byrne and Wilson, who took over in 2002.
For many locals, the Quonset hut bar (with the 1950s shuffle board) and dining area remain a direct link to the early days of the roadhouse business and that’s exactly what Byrne and Wilson like.
“We love that kind of history, that legacy and that’s one of the things that attracted us to the place,” Byrne said. “We’ve tried to encourage that and preserve that.”
Before purchasing the business in 2002, Byrne and Wilson enjoyed traveling throughout the foothills and when they decided to move from the busy Bay Area, they began the search for a legacy business.
“We traveled the foothills for three years when we could, just looking at everything – hydroelectric plants, grocery stores, Airbnbs, whatever was out there,” Byrne said.
They finally learned of the historic Willo being for sale and made an offer. Despite advice from friends that being in the restaurant business was tough, they went ahead with the purchase.
“I think it was meant to be,” Wilson said.
“We were looking for something that had character,” Byrne said. “I remember growing up and going to older places that I enjoyed, traditional places, places that made you feel very comfortable.”
The Willo has become a Nevada County institution over the years and has received recognition throughout the state as an authentic example of the roadhouse-style restaurant.
Voted best steak year after year by the readers of The Union and named favorite roadhouse by Sacramento Magazine, the menu remains simple and unpretentious. Besides New York steaks (and rib eyes on weekends), burgers, ribs and seafood are featured along with the customary iceberg salad and homemade beans. And you’ll probably be served by the same waitress or bartender you’ve seen for years.
“Maggie’s been here 33 years,” said Wilson, “and Ken, the old owner, is here today. He’s 80 and he bartends on Tuesdays from 1 to 4:30. It’s a part of his life.”
And in keeping with the Willo legacy, it was important to keep the menu virtually unchanged from previous years.
“We want to keep it pretty much as it has been,” Byrne said. “We’ve tweaked it a little bit, but we’ve been very careful not to change the main thrust of the whole thing. That’s been a successful business model for 50 years. One mistake people make when they purchase a historical business like this is to come in and change it. We had no intention of doing that.”
Wilson pointed out that many locals were worried that the beloved restaurant would be changed by new owners, but the couple recognized the significance of keeping the place an authentic piece of Nevada City history.
“People know what they like, and they expect to get it when they come here,” Wilson said. “So, we’ve kept it consistent.”
As an example, Byrne noted that they do now offer a mixed green salad with dinner, but it will not replace the iceberg.
“We would have been crazy to replace the iceberg with the mixed green. We would have had all kinds of problems and complaints,” he said.
Only small upgrades to higher quality ingredients have been instituted, and the meat continues to be the highest quality from Midwest suppliers and then aged at the restaurant.
Other improvements not readily visible to patrons are a new insulated roof and an upgraded air-conditioning system. The latter significantly improves airflow, particularly since the open grill remains a popular feature of the dining room. Although many diners prefer to have the cook do the work, customers still have the option of grilling their own steaks at the grill.
“We have one customer who’s been grilling his own steak here once a week for the past 40 years,” said Byrne with a smile. “His thing is, I like to cook, but I don’t like to clean up.”
And he has a glass of wine while he does it, added Wilson.
The comfortable familiarity of the Willo remains one of the most important aspects of the establishment for Byrne and Wilson, and both want to see it remain an easy place to socialize for locals as well as visitors as it has in the past.
Now, the couple is looking forward to the 50th year anniversary this year and are collecting ideas from customers and friends for a celebration in the summer. Could there be a brief return of the Gold Miner’s Special?
“We’re just starting the planning, getting ideas from people. Nothing definite, but we’ll do something in the summer,” Wilson said.
“Once we get through the winter and have that behind us,” said Byrne, “we’ll put something together. We’re asking our customers for ideas and writing them down, so we’ll see what happens this summer.”
About the photos:
Nancy Wilson and Mike Byrne outside the Willo.
PHOTO BY ANDREW WEDGBURY
The familiar Willo neon sign on Hwy 49.
PHOTO BY ANDREW WEDGBURY