Twenty-five years after Walkers American Grill opened in downtown Billings, the restaurant will be closing next Saturday for at least three weeks, then reopening with a new look and a new menu, while setting the stage for eventual new ownership.
Owner Bill Honaker said the new Walkers will have a larger casual dining area, an al a carte menu with cheaper prices, an edgier look with more light and color, and dishes that mix elements of a variety of world cuisines.
Nick Steen, Honaker’s new executive chef and general manager, summed it all up succinctly. Steen, 32, and sporting prominent tattoos, pointed to the 57-year-old Honaker and said, “It’ll look more like me and less like him.”
Steen, who came over to Walkers in May from the TEN restaurant at the neighboring Northern Hotel, is the first chef at Walkers to wear the general manager title, too, since that had always been Honaker’s role. But Honaker wants to prepare for the future, and he wants to devote more time to his other passion — downtown development, particularly residential development.
So he’ll gradually be turning restaurant operations over to Steen and front-of-the-house manager Sam Fisher, with an eye toward eventually selling the restaurant to Steen.
“It’s exciting,” Steen said. “It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
As part of the rebranding, Walkers will no longer be billing its cuisine as “new American.” That made sense when the restaurant opened 25 years ago, “when basil was a special order,” Honaker said, but now it’s almost meaningless. The new logo will say “Walkers, Neighborhood Provisions.”
“It’s an urban neighborhood, but it’s still a neighborhood,” he said, “and we’ve been providing for that neighborhood for 25 years.”
The original Walkers opened at North 27th Street and Third Avenue North in 1992 — when coincidentally, Honaker was as old as Steen is now — and moved to the corner of North 27th Street and First Avenue North 12 years later.
Five years ago, Walkers closed briefly to give the interior a fresh look, with reupholstered chairs and some new furnishings. The makeover that will start after the close of business next Saturday will be much more extensive.
The casual bar-seating area will be extended into what is now the main dining room, to a little past the middle of that room. The front part will have stools and high tables, like the bar area, with a big sofa down the middle of the room. A 40-seat dining room, raised up a couple of feet so that people sitting at regular tables will be on a level with the higher tables up front, will occupy the back half of the main room.
All the furniture, fixtures and artwork will be new, and the drapes will come off the windows along First Avenue. There will be new floors, a brighter paint scheme and even some graffiti-based artwork in the main room.
Prominently displayed in the bar area will be a large photograph taken at the original Walkers — a photograph by former waiter Nic Jovanich of former bartender Terrell Lane smoking a cigarette in front of a menu board.
The interior design is being done by James Kordonoy. The existing design scheme by Mitch Thompson — described by Honaker as a kind of urban cowboy look — was always popular. Part of the trouble, Steen said, was that it was so popular that variations of it have been adopted at restaurants across Montana.
There will be still be live jazz in the southeast corner of the bar area every Sunday evening, but Honaker said the musicians could eventually move into the expanded casual dining area.
As for the menu, the big change will be the al a carte menu, allowing diners to select a main dish and whatever sides they want to go with it. “You put the control onto the consumer to decide how much they want to spend,” Honaker said. With the change, he said, the highest-priced items on the menu will be about $20.
And though he and Steen are overhauling the menu, they have decided to keep two standards, the James Beard Famous Meatloaf and Walkers Famous Bourbon Street Linguine. After all, you don’t label dishes “famous” and then just do away with them.
They are still working out details of the new menu, Honaker said, but one new dish will give an idea of the blending of world cuisines they’re aiming for: short ribs with Italian gnocchi, Mexican crema fresca and a Korean barbecue sauce, with the short ribs cooked in bacon fat.
“We want to keep the food fresh and tasty and lively,” Steen said.
The trick is to appeal equally to diners in their 60s and diners in their 20s, Honaker said: “We’re going to make an attempt to do that.”
Honaker met Steen years ago, when Honaker was on the board of the Montana Restaurant Association and Steen, then a chef at Lone Mountain Ranch at Big Sky, was a coach and mentor for the association’s high-school chef-training program.
Steen had been at the Northern for barely more than a year when he was hired by Honaker, but Steen said Northern owner Mike Nelson knew it was an opportunity not to be passed up, and he stops by Walkers occasionally to see how Steen is doing.
Before joining Walkers, Steen was also good friends with his predecessor there, Marlo Spreng, who left Walkers to work for Sodexo as the executive chef on the Montana State University Billings campus.
Honaker said the remodel should take about three weeks, but to play it safe they’re telling people Walkers will close on Sept. 25 and reopen sometime in October. You can sign up to receive email updates on the remodel’s progress by going to the Walkers website or to its Facebook page.