When the Willow Den — now known as the Willow Den Public House — celebrates its ninth anniversary Sunday, it’ll also mark a turning point in the sometimes troubled history of the San Jose bar on Lincoln Avenue.
Along with the new name, the DJ booths at the Willow Glen dive have been taken out, replaced by live bands on Friday and Saturday nights. Decor has been spruced up and even the dollar bills that have decorated the bar’s ceiling for nearly a decade are gone (though they’re slowly being replaced). It’s part of a change that owner Hans Heller says has been a long time coming and perhaps a bit overdue.
In 2010, when Heller and Joe Farwell bought what was then called the Checkered Flag, it had a rough reputation as a biker bar. They were aiming to create a dive bar with personality, similar to those they had tended bar at in Los Gatos. Heller says that Mark Achilli, the Los Gatos bar owner who was killed in 2008, was his mentor and a photo of him hangs near the register.
But things didn’t quite go as planned.
“We kind of got away from the path we were on,” said Heller, who became the sole owner after Farwell departed after a couple of years to take over Mountain Charley’s, the bar his dad founded in 1972. “It was extremely successful at night, but with that comes some dirty laundry.”
That included a stabbing outside the bar in 2013 after the popular Dancin’ on the Avenue festival. Heller said after that incident, he tried to institute changes to tone things down with limited success. Then, on the night before Thanksgiving last year, a huge fight that broke out and spilled onto Lincoln Avenue was the last straw for Heller. He sent an email to employees that said the Willow Den as they knew it was no more. People wondered if he would sell, but he had a different idea.
“It’s probably a place that many citizens would like to see go away, but at the same time there are a lot who see it as part of the history of the town,” Heller said of the bar, which opened as the Diamond Wheel card club in 1959. He spent Thanksgiving weekend tearing out the DJ booths and taking down signage to show he was serious about changing the bar’s image, right down to the name.
Two weeks ago — as a symbolic break with the past — a party was held to remove the dollar bills that customers had pinned to the Willow Den’s ceiling. When all the money was added up, the total came to $6,200. Heller and some friends are matching that amount and making a donation to the Free Wheelchair Mission, a nonprofit cause that became close to Heller’s heart after his father, Herman, had to use a wheelchair following a stroke last year.
Heller says the response to the Willow Den Public House has been good. “Every time I’m in here I’m seeing new faces, people from all over the community,” he said. “The regulars are going to be here no matter what, but they appreciate the change, too.”
And new dollar bills are already going up on the ceiling, too. Heller plans to clear the ceiling every year and donate the proceeds to a different charity. “People are giving us a second chance, and that’s all we want,” Heller said.
LAST CHANCE IN LOS ALTOS: Time is running short to see “Inspired by Juana: The Doña de la Frontera,” a bilingual exhibition at the Los Altos History Museum about Juana Briones, the dynamic 19th-century businesswoman. The exhibition has gotten some rave reviews, but it closes March 31. Fernando Zazueta of the La Raza Historical Society of Santa Clara Valley is among the exhibition’s fans and thinks it could be a great traveling show at History Park in San Jose. Get more information on it at www.losaltoshistory.org.
CHERRY OF AN HONOR: Cherry farmer Charlie Olson was honored this month at Alpha Kappa Delta’s fashion show and luncheon at the Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church. Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein presented Olson with a certificate recognizing his work as host of a golf tournament to raise scholarship money for students in the Fremont Union High School District. Alpha Kappa Delta is an international organization of educators that locally raises money for Sunnyvale elementary school kids to attend science camp and to provide teachers with grants for classroom projects.
DRAWING A CROWD: SLG Art Boutiki on Race Street in San Jose will host a presentation and discussion Wednesday with two weekly political cartoonists, Sunnyvale-based artist Angelo Lopez and Chicago-based artist Eric J. Garcia. In addition to his work for San Bruno-based “Philippines Today,” Lopez’s art may be familiar to South Bay residents: The San Jose State grad painted murals at Lester Shields Elementary in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library and the Sunnyvale Public Library. “Conscious Cartoonists of Color” starts at 6:30 p.m. and is free to attend. Get more details at www.artboutiki.com.
San Jose dive bar with a bad reputation reinventing itself