The new incarnation of the venerable downtown spot has both a feel of the old place as well as a flavor of its own.
Going to a restaurant is more than the sum of its parts. It’s always about the food, the service and the atmosphere, but there’s another layer of the experience that’s tougher to quantify, and that’s the restaurant’s sense of place. Not just the building or the décor, though these are important. But the way all of these elements blend with the location to give diners a sensation that they wouldn’t feel in any other place on earth. This can wind up being a bad thing, say in a restaurant with good food and service, but a big window looking out over an industrial park.
On the other hand, take Billy’s, which opened up this June in the old Billy’s Ritz location on the corner of Salem and Market Street in Downtown Roanoke. Looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows, there are great views of the Market Building, the railroad tracks, and a sliver of the Hotel Roanoke, and it’s hard to think of a vantage point that shouts “You are in Roanoke” any louder.
Like a lot of things in Roanoke, Billy’s is an interesting mix of upscale and casual. The infrastructure is gorgeous, with plenty of dark wood, great historic architectural features, and ultra-modernized restrooms, but the tables and chairs in the dining room seem designed almost to pass below the radar. This could be a move calculated to prevent the furniture from districting diners from the food.
We met in the bar – I had dropped my wife and gone to park the car around the corner – and by the time I got there, she had a glass of pinot grigio and was enjoying the show. As the sunset illuminated tourists with badges from the Taubman Museum bustling past on their way to the bridge over the railroad tracks, and myriad other folks heading to and from various downtown entertainments, she perched on a barstool taking it all in.
“This is my new favorite spot for people watching,” she said. I mentioned something complimentary about the décor, and she agreed, but crooked a thumb back over her shoulder and said, “Yeah, but it can’t be that fancy. They’ve got SportsCenter on the TV.” Again, that mix…
Judging from the arthouse glass, the gorgeous dark wood trim, and the huge mirrors along the wall, it would be easy to assume that you needed to brace yourself for a mercilessly upscale menu, but Billy’s food and prices manage to be upscale without going off the scale. For example, the appetizer menu has some ambitious items like grilled oysters on the half-shell and ahi tuna in a seaweed salad, but there are also more down-to-earth offerings like mac and cheese with country ham, nachos, and grilled chicken wings dressed one of five ways. Regular readers may already know that I went for the wings. I’m aware that I have a problem. Though the fig balsamic flavor sounded intriguing, I instead opted for the Jamaican jerk, and it’s hard to feel any regret on that score. Sweet and spicy without being overwhelming, the flavorings really allowed the char-flavor of the chicken to emerge. My wife was slightly less impressed than I was, but she conceded that this was simply because they weren’t hot enough to eat through metal.
“But I recognize that some people are not into pain,” she said, “so this is probably pretty good.”
Notwithstanding this slight imperfection, we both really enjoyed the grilled oysters, topped with garlic butter and bread crumbs with parmesan. They were creamy and tender in texture, not cooked so much as to make them rubbery and prevent their flavor from being strong enough to stand up to the seasonings. I normally like oysters breaded in something really unhealthy and deep-fried in something worse, but these ones could make me a convert.