Story and photos by Jennifer Woods
A resilient, home-style restaurant can be found in Washington Court House with a plethora of comfort food made from scratch.
The Willow Restaurant has been a part of the local community for a decade and is co-owned by Denny Smith and his wife, Kelly. Although they are located in the same building as when they first opened, a renovation after a fire last July makes it feel new.
The fire, which caused a large amount of damage to the building, forced the restaurant to close. It reopened in February. Through hiring some staff members to assist with the renovations and community donations to an employee relief fund, most of the original employees were able to return to The Willow once it reopened.
Although the dining room has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the catering business that ties in with the restaurant was not getting any orders, the restaurant owners decided to keep The Willow open for carryout. And the staff started working toward creative options on family meals that could be baked at home — baked spaghetti, turkey pot pie and shepherd’s pie. They also transitioned two daily specials — baked steak and chicken and noodles — into everyday items.
“That’s saving us. The chicken and noodles and the baked steak are our biggest sellers throughout,” Smith said.
The chicken and noodles recipe is a longtime favorite, complete with homemade noodles made daily because of demand, and the recipe came from Smith’s grandmother.
When Smith was younger, he learned to cook by watching his grandmother teach his mother how to do so. Because his mother worked, he would cook often.
While the Smiths have made some changes to menu offerings, they have not changed their habits of supporting other local businesses. During renovations, several of the purchased items and contracted work came from various businesses found throughout Fayette County.
During the pandemic, Denny helped another local restaurant owner to transport food and allowed for it to be stored in The Willow’s walk-in freezer so that owner would have it quickly accessible.
“We all try to get along. Our customers are the same people as their customers,” Smith said. “It’s just — some people can eat at the same place twice a day, seven days a week. The average person can’t do that.”
To help regular customers, The Willow makes substitutions. Smith explained he is a picky eater, too. One of the regular customers is on a restricted diet. They often serve her cottage cheese along with their deviled eggs. Although the eggs typically come as an appetizer, they give her the portion size she requests.
She isn’t the only one who regularly orders The Willow’s deviled eggs. They have sold well since they were added to the menu after the restaurant reopened. Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant would regularly have themed buffets, and the deviled eggs were often requested to come with it.
“Treating the customers with respect and they treat us with respect — that seems to be one of the main foundations to our businesses,” Smith said.
Part of that respect includes the customers and the staff getting to know one another and their families.
“Our customers have been really nice. They really seem to appreciate what we do, and the tips that they are leaving are spread among everybody,” Smith said. “We’re on reduced staff, and they aren’t getting their 40 hours. We’re trying to utilize as many employees as we can. It’s nice, since they are working half their hours, that they can get those tips. That helps them and their families.”
It’s not just local customers wanting the home-cooked comfort food and pies made from scratch.
“I would say 50 percent of our business on a regular basis is from out of town,” explained Denny. “People drive in from Hillsboro, Greenfield, Chillicothe, Circleville, Grove City. (In the beginning of April), when we had the warmer weather, we had people come in from Chillicothe, and they brought lawn chairs. They sat out and had a picnic in the parking lot under the trees away from anyone else.”
The resilience continues even though there are strange challenges during the pandemic, such as take-out containers being difficult to come by, not receiving all ordered supplies, health precautions, grocery supplies being uneven, events not being available for catering, employment challenges and more.
“We’re striving to survive through (the pandemic) with our employees intact,” Smith said.
The Willow Restaurant
203 Glenn Ave., Washington Court House
Follow on Facebook or visit thewillowrestaurant.com
The Willow Restaurant’s Signature Salad
Just in time for spring, this is a popular add-on during the season and pairs well with various dishes.
Fresh greens of preference
Toasted almond slivers
Cooked bacon bits
Blue cheese crumbles
Start with a fresh bed of mixed greens then top with cranberries, almonds, bacon, cheese and red onion. Various dressings can be used, although a raspberry vinaigrette dressing is suggested.
The Willow’s Deviled Eggs
Marzetti Slaw Dressing
Start with peeled, hard-boiled eggs. Cut the eggs in half and remove the yolks. Place the yolks in the bag and mash them. Combine with Marzetti Slaw Dressing until the desired consistency is achieved.
Next, cut off one of the corners of the bag and pipe the mixture into the egg halves. Top with a sprinkling of paprika and candied bacon.