Whenever I tell anyone I’m from Hagerstown, the usual reply is something like “Oh, I go there to eat at Wellivers”, or “Isn’t that where that famous smorgasbord is?” However, most recently people have replied, “Is it true Wellivers closed? What is Hagerstown going to do?”
When the famous Guy Wellivers Smorgasbord, or Willie’s, as the locals called it, closed last year, Hagerstown residents went into shock for several reasons. It was hard to believe a beloved 60+ year-old landmark could actually close its doors, we worried how our Main Street would survive without the visitors Willie’s brought to town, and we went into Willie food withdraw really bad. Although many locals ate “off the Smorgasbord” only on special occasions, like during family get-togethers or club meetings, we ate “off the menu” or “on the menu side” quite often, sometimes weekly, either in the Mill Room or in the cozy bar. When Willie’s closed we missed the taste of the melt-in-your-mouth filets with their side of onion strings, the Willie’s cheeseball, the taco or curry dip (depending on whether you preferred the taco chips and meat dip or the cut veggies and mayo-based dip on their Potpourri plate), the piled high deli sandwiches, and the famous Welliver’s potato salad. We missed the feel of peanut shells under our feet as we made our way through the bar, stopping to talk to old friends, neighbors and family members, or the gals behind the bar (who were also old friends, neighbors and/or family members). We actually missed standing in the hallway with our frosty mug of beer — for sometimes up to and hour and a half — as we waited for our table, drooling as people passed by with their smorgasbord food. We all tried to adjust to life without Willie’s food, life without Willie’s visitors jamming our Main Street, and life without the money the visitors brought to the other businesses in town.
So when we heard another local family bought the place and planned to reopen it, we rejoiced for the town, but we were skeptical about whether or not the place could ever be what it was. After much remodeling, “Willie & Reds’” opened on Thanksgiving Day and Main Street has been packed every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday since then.
My husband and I thought we should give them a few weeks to get the kinks worked out and get settled into their routines before we visited, so last Friday we made our first visit to Willie & Red’s. The remodeled entrance hall was lovely and uncluttered. We were greeted by the young hostess, our step-daughter’s best friend and co-worker, and told our wait wouldn’t be too long since it was just the two of us. True to her word we were seated about 5 minutes later. I was a little disappointed I didn’t have time to wander into the bar and grab a beer, then stand in the waiting hall a while so I could take in the sites and smells. We were seated in the almost full Mill Room (I think I knew ¼ of the people there), but in a new seating area where the wait station used to be. It was nice to see they were able to add several tables to the room. It was also nice to see the huge wooden mill wheel was working again. The room looked great, all cleaned up and with a new wood floor and paneled ceiling, but with the same old barn siding and mill-related murals intact.
After an extensive review of the menu, which contained most of the original Welliver’s dishes and sides, my husband chose the New York Strip Steak, with a salad and baked potato, and I chose the Beer-Battered Shrimp, with potato salad and a dinner salad. It was difficult not to choose one of my old favorites, either the Peel & Eat Shrimp, or a Chef Salad, but I wanted to try something a little different – and warm. We were pleased when they brought us the Potpourri plate and it held both the taco dip and the curry dip, so neither one of us had to be disappointed (during the last days of Wellivers the table had to chose one or the other). And it tasted just like it used to. Life started to feel right again. We also ordered draft beer and I was again pleased to see it was served in the big, heavy, frosty mugs like old times. Our salads came out shortly and again they were almost identical to the old Welliver’s salads, with the homemade croutons, mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, and small spiced beets (you either love them or hate them). And then they placed the plate of rolls and cinnamon bread on the table. Yes, life was feeling really good.
Our entrees took a little while but we didn’t mind because we had plenty of salad and Potpourri to keep our attention, and we could have gotten cheese ball if we had wanted, plus we had to time to look around and visit with people we knew. We did notice the Mill Room seemed much louder than before since it no longer had carpet to mute the noise of talking and food carts rolling across the floor. When the food did come we were not disappointed. My husband’s steak was hot, tender and delicious, cooked medium just like he requested. We decided it wasn’t quite as tasty as a Welliver steak but it was still better than any other steak around (we are told the old chefs returned but the grill is new). Since my husband doesn’t like onions I ate his onion strings and they tasted as good as I remembered. I don’t think I’ve ever had Beer-Battered Shrimp as good as I had that night. It was lightly battered, very large butterflied shrimp, and was extremely tasty and tender. And I almost cried when I tasted the potato salad…ahhh, it was my beloved Willie’s potato salad. I felt like I had gone home.
Willie & Red’s is located at 40 E. Main St. (SR 38), in Hagerstown, which is about 4 miles north of I-70, an hour east of Indianapolis. Hours are: Thurs: 4:00 pm – 9:00 pm, Fri – Sat: 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm, and Sun: 12:00 pm – 8:00 pm. It is a menu service restaurant at this time but they may reopen the Smorgasbord side at a later time; until then they offer a “Build Your Own Buffet” service for groups of 30+. Private parties with 20 to 30 people may choose a select menu for their group. Full Service bar is available. They accept call ahead seating, which means if you call during open hours you can get your name on the wait list. Reservations for private parties are accepted for 20 adults or more. Call 765-489-4131 for more info or visit them on Facebook.