By Laura Hayes
Willow Restaurant opened its doors in Ballston 10 years ago in September 2005 with the wedding of then business manager now director of operations, Brian Wolken, and its chef and co-owner, Tracy O’Grady. The wedding was even captured in the New York Times. Wolken says his nuptials will remain his most treasured memory because it set the tone. “I just keep coming back to it because of what it represents,” he says. “Willow became a starting point for a lot of people’s biggest moments in life: We’ve hosted weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, and I can’t help but think that’s why we became who we are.”
On Sept. 19, the doors will close for reasons Wolken chalks up to “vastly increased competition; a commercial vacancy rate in Arlington that has more than doubled in the last few years; and a landlord who has unrealistic expectations about what the space is worth on a monthly basis,” he announced in a Facebook post that was received with an outpouring of support.
The restaurant will spend the next 10 days going out with a bang. Starting Friday, a half-priced wine list hand-picked by O’Grady will be available. “We’re going to take some of the better bottles that we got for special occasions and offer them half-off to cover our costs and make sure they get drank by our guests,” Wolken explains.
There will be other specials next week all culminating in an Irish Wake on Saturday, Sept. 19. “We’re going to go out the same way we came in,” Wolken says. There will be a limited menu of the best dishes off the Nosh bar menu, plus passed hors d’oeuvres and drink specials. Any leftover food will be donated to D.C. Central Kitchen.
Ballston seems to be boom or bust in 2015. The Mike Isabella Concepts compound at 4000 Wilson Blvd. which houses Kapnos Taverna, Pepita Cantina and the coming-soon attraction of Yona is attracting significant buzz, so too is Spanish restaurant SER down the street. At the same time, Vapiano closed its doors in June after eight years, and Pizza Vinoteca only made pies for six months. Ballston locations of Ted’s Montana Grill and Protein Bar also closed.
But Wolken says the closures have been a long time coming. “It’s been a weird five years in Ballston, and it’s the culmination of something that has been going on for quite a while,” he says. “It’s quite scary honestly. We’re at a 21 percent vacancy rate.” He blames the way Ballston was expanded. “The pie’s only so big, so when people are taking more and more cuts out of it and offering more and more flavors of pie, there will only be so much left.”
After they turn out the lights for the last time, Wolken and O’Grady plan to finally go on a honeymoon and regroup. “We’re unsure; we’re hesitant; but we’re moving forward,” he says.
Laura Hayes hails from Philly (but don’t hold it against her). She’s been covering the local dining scene for three years, and her work has been published in the Washington Post, Food Network, Washington City Paper, Arlington Magazine and more. Having lived in Japan for two years, she finds herself in a constant state of craving sushi. Laura always orders her favorite savory dish again for dessert and keeps her gut in check through lots of CrossFit classes.