No 2 Willie’s are alike in this family
By Greg Sabin
Willie’s, the Sacramento burger institution, is a three-restaurant, two-generation juggernaut that has kept thousands of locals well fed and happy for three decades. Opened in 1991, with one small Downtown location, the brand grew. Now each Willie’s has its own identity and owner.
The original location, 16th and Broadway, is a boisterous gem. Slinging Willie’s signature burgers (hammers) and chili burgers (slammers) late into the night, the spot is a magnet for after-concert goers, restaurant workers and hungry neighbors.
Bill and Stephanie Taylor are the pioneer operators. Their first expansion came in 2004, when they opened at Arden Way and Fair Oaks Boulevard. The third location arrived in Old Sacramento in 2016. It’s run by Bill and Stephanie’s son Greg.
“Each location has its own personality,” Stephanie Taylor tells me. “The Downtown spot is a great late-night hangout. The Arden location is definitely more of a family spot. And the Old Sac restaurant is, of course, a more tourist-oriented place.”
Each location has its own menu. Broadway leans into Los Angeles-style burgers and chili burgers, borrowing from Southern Cal icon Tommy’s. “We went to college in L.A., Bill at USC and me at UCLA,” Stephanie says, “and we loved eating Tommy’s chili burgers in a parking lot surrounded by people and pigeons.”
The Arden location rolls out local wines, varied entrees and salads with fresh produce.
“We’re trying to be more than a burger stand,” Stephanie says. “I know those moms that drop their kids off at school, go for a run along the river, and then look for something healthy to eat. I used to be one of them.”
The new vibe at the Arden location focuses on families. With help from her son Brooks, a landscape architect (all three Taylor children have degrees in architecture), Stephanie built out the outdoor area in time for spring and summer.
Adding a play area, cornhole and more relaxed lounge areas around new plantings, the Carmichael spot aims at relaxation rather than grab-and-go burgers.
“One of the hardest things about being a restaurant known for your burgers is convincing people that you’re more than just burgers,” Stephanie says.
Those burgers are righteous. I’ve eaten many burgers and am a fair judge. Willie’s does not disappoint. I brought my nephew Matthew who, thanks to his weight-lifting regimen, can eat more than most humans. We easily split a double slammer with room to spare.
The chili “sauce” that tops the slider-thin patties works nicely with the fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Neither spicy nor bland, the chili brings hints of pepper and tomato. I wouldn’t swear to it but think I caught a dash of cinnamon.
As Stephanie Taylor tells me, Willie’s is more than burgers. They also have shakes, not afterthought shakes but real ice cream shakes that outshine most ice cream shops. Try the chocolate with fresh banana.
Willie’s is infamous for its beignets. Fresh-fried, light and puffy, these doughy, sugary treats are the least healthy things you can eat after a chili burger, but they’re delightful.
Whether you’re in the mood for a classic burger or salad and glass of wine or vegan garden burger or decadent dessert, try Willie’s. Each location is unique. Each family member gets to shine.