James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalists Mark and Terri Stark together own and operate six of Sonoma County’s favorite, and most highly rated, restaurants: Monti’s Rotisserie, Bird & The Bottle, and Stark’s Steak & Seafood in Santa Rosa, and Willi’s Seafood and Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg. After its loss in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, they are looking forward to relocating and re-opening their flagship, Willi’s Wine Bar, which first welcomed diners and introduced Santa Rosans to the small plates concept in 2002.
Mark is executive chef and Terri handles all front-of-house operations for the restaurants. From Willi’s Wine Bar to their most recent opening (Bird & The Bottle in 2015), Mark and Terri’s restaurants have consistently earned top accolades and praise, including San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Bay Area Restaurant status (Willi’s Wine Bar and Bravas), Michelin Bib Gourmand (Monti’s, Willi’s Wine Bar), and Travel + Leisure Top 20 US Tapas Restaurants (Bravas).
Says San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, “What sets Mark and Terri Stark apart from many restaurateurs who have multiple locations is that each location is different. If their names weren’t written on the menu, in fact, you probably wouldn’t know it was one of their properties… Willi’s has remained one of my favorite casual stops in Sonoma County.”
Mark is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and honed his professional cooking skills in Washington, D.C. and Seattle. Terri majored in hospitality at the University of Oregon, and had a successful catering and restaurant management career in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mark and Terri met while both were working for the California Cafe Restaurant Group in Palo Alto; he as a regional chef and she as manager of the catering department. They married in 1999 and relocated shortly thereafter to Sonoma County, where Terri has four generations of family.
The Starks founded Stark Reality Restaurants in 2006 to manage the operations of their diverse group of dining establishments. They are now one of Sonoma County’s largest employers, with over 400 employees. More than awards and accolades, Terri and Mark are most proud of being able to provide mentorship and employment to so many workers in the local culinary field. They have offered health care to their full-time employees since the day they opened. Another rarity in the restaurant business: many of their employees have been with them for ten years or more. The Starks are committed to promoting from within, what Terri refers to as “stocking our own pond.” All of their chefs started out working for them as cooks, and, in some cases, dishwashers. The biggest measure of success, according to Mark, “At least 20 employees who started out washing dishes and bussing tables now own their houses; more than anything else, that is our greatest accomplishment.”
The Starks believe it’s not enough to provide great food and service in a comfortable setting—those things are to be expected. Their goal is to provide an experience that will leave diners saying, “I can’t wait to come back.” With six restaurants under their belts, that philosophy seems to be working.