By John Ramos

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) – An iconic Santa Rosa restaurant, destroyed in the Tubbs fire a year and half ago, has reopened its doors, presenting a powerful symbol of recovery for customers and workers alike.

When Willi’s Wine Bar opened for lunch Thursday in a brand new location it still felt like a homecoming.

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“The old Willi’s was such an iconic roadhouse,” co-owner Terri Stark told KPIX-5 reporter John Ramos.  “The history behind it was amazing and it was in the middle of nowhere…middle of everywhere…”

It was Mark and Terri Stark’s first restaurant venture 17 years ago – ”fine dining in flip-flops” and the customers ate it up.  But the Starks now own a whole chain of different restaurants and initially they didn’t plan to reopen Willi’s.

“I think everyone was constantly bothering them and telling them they had to come back,” said customer Karen Anderson, “and I think they really came around knowing they missed it too.”

“So, it was really important that this place rise from the ashes, literally,” said another diner, Jill Bates.

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But it was the staff that convinced them to rebuild.  After the fire the Starks found jobs for everyone in their other restaurants, but for many it wasn’t quite the same.

“Honestly, the original staff wanted to go home,” said Mark Stark.

Now, in a renovated storefront in the Town and Country shopping center, the Starks are once again offering Moroccan lamb chops and their signature truffle fries.  The only reminder of the fire is a joke – a lamp at the reservation desk made out of a fire extinguisher.  And the only thing saved from the old location is hanging over the bar – a horseshoe found in the ashes.  But does the new place really do justice to the old one?

“Hell, yeah, absolutely,” Mark said with a laugh.  “You’d think after 17 years of practice we’d know what we’re doing.  It feels pretty good.”

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It’s been 19 months since the fire and it hasn’t been easy, so people in the area appreciate things from their past they can hold on to.  As for the workers, they were so eager to rejoin Willi’s Wine Bar, that when it reopened Thursday, 70 percent of the staff was from the old restaurant.