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Published March 24, 2011, 12:00 AM

Dilworth fixture Willy’s closes

Center Avenue mainstay had seen many changes over the years
Eighty years ago, it opened as the Dilworth Café. Then it became Durhams, then Savard’s, then Cully’s, and finally the popular neighborhood restaurant and bar known as Willy’s.

Eighty years ago, it opened as the Dilworth Café. Then it became Durhams, then Savard’s, then Cully’s, and finally the popular neighborhood restaurant and bar known as Willy’s.

Now, it’s gone, leaving locals short of an old favorite and Center Avenue a little bit emptier.

“It’s a huge hole,” said Kevin Hieb, head cook at Willy’s for nearly two decades. “It was an icon.”

Hieb was hired “out of the blue” as a cook in 1991. He spent the next 18 years preparing the restaurant’s signature dishes: spaghetti and meatballs, homemade French dressing, and barbecue ribs. Through the years, he watched a loyal group of regulars come through the door – people “who had been coming in for 40 years,” couples who met in the restaurant.

One couple came in to celebrate their 50th anniversary. The husband had proposed to his wife at Willy’s. One couple actually got married in the restaurant in 1987, so the story goes.

“It was a family place,” Hieb said.

That’s not just a figure of speech: Hieb’s parents wound up purchasing the restaurant in 2003. They bought it from Willard Rice, who had run it with his own sons, Jay and Dan, since purchasing it from C.K. “Cully” Berquam in 1976.

The restaurant closed briefly in 2003 when the Rices stepped down, but reopened a few weeks later when Orv and Emma Hieb took over.

In a 1997 Q&A, Jay Rice told The Forum he hoped “to keep Willy’s doors open to the public for another 20 years (or more).”

The restaurant didn’t quite make it there, and Kevin Hieb said he’s not thrilled with the way the most recent owners – three Californians with family ties in the area who bought the restaurant in 2009 – ran the place.

“I feel bad I let them buy it from my dad,” said Hieb, who lost his job there a year ago. “They didn’t run it right.” At the time Orv Hieb sold the restaurant, the new owners – who couldn’t be reached for comment for this story – said no major changes where coming. Kevin Hieb said rising prices, menu changes and other factors combined to sink Willy’s.

Tom Knoll, a regular who ate at Willy’s a few times a week, can’t remember a time when it wasn’t around. “I’m 68 years old, and the place was always old to me,” he said.

He recalls both the menu and the ambiance with fondness. “They had the best garlic toast. They had the best hash brown potatoes,” he said. “And they had the best clientele.”

Knoll, who owned nearby JC’s Corral Bar for years, has his own family ties to Willy’s. His father sold his own family bar in the late 1930s, and was subsequently struck with an acute case of seller’s remorse. The elder Knoll brokered a deal that allowed him to buy his bar back, arranging for the buyer to acquire Willy’s predecessor Durham’s – which became Savard’s after the sale – instead.

“It was a good operation,” Tom Knoll said of Willy’s. “People miss it.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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