John O'Hara and Joe Leone have been friends for decades, ever since attending elementary school together at Saint Aidan in Williston Park. Later, the two both spent "formative years," as O'Hara calls them, at TR's Great American, a pub in town.
Did they ever think they would own the place? Not necessarily, but after the 40-year-old TR's closed last year, Leone and O'Hara dove into business together, reopening the bar this fall as Willistons' to almost immediate swarms of locals.
"If it were anywhere else, I wouldn't have had an interest in it, but because of our personal and town history, we had a sentimental attachment," said O'Hara, who met the woman who would become his wife, Mary, at TR's. "When we were demo-ing, I cut out a section of the bar where we met," he added. (That section is now in their at home, marked with a plaque).
O'Hara and Leone spent about a year renovating the historic brick building into an upscale tavern, unearthing original brick walls and adding an ornately tiled floor, 14-seat bar and oversized black leather booths along one side of the bar room.
The ground floor is lined by windows and seats 44 people, and its centerpiece bar has 10 taps, dozens of wines by the bottle (12 by the glass) and cocktails such as an espresso martini and blood-orange cosmo. A clubbier upstairs dining room-slash-private event space (with its own bar) has space for another 60 diners.
They marked the new name, Willistons', with a deliberate plural possessive, "to show that it belongs to the town."
Like many restaurateurs, O'Hara and Leone have grappled with staffing challenges, but leave most operations in the hands of general manager Chas White. The kitchen is the realm of chef Rich Schoenacher, who has worked on both the West and East coasts and has rolled out a hard-to-categorize menu with appetizers running from deviled eggs, fried calamari salad and both "bama" and Buffalo wings, to bao buns filled with spiced chickpeas and ale-stamed mussels accented with sauerkraut and mustard.
There's also carnitas and birria tacos; burgers; a BLT and a hot fried chicken sandwich. Larger plates include steak frites, grilled salmon in a citrus beurre blanc sauce and Brazilian seafood stew. "We're expanding the menu judiciously," said O'Hara, as well as running specials and adding brunch in the coming months.
Appetizers start at $7 for deviled eggs; sandwiches, salads and tacos fall between $11 and $19; and larger plates are $19 to $45 for filet mignon in a red-wine sauce with glazed baby carrots and garlic mashed potatoes.
Willistons' Restaurant & Bar is open Wednesday to Sunday from 4 p.m. on at 17 Hillside Ave., Williston Park. 516-490-4877, willistonswp.com