Back to basics at Willows Galley restaurant

Popular Oak Bay haunt returns to its roots

Dave Higgins

Dave Higgins

Not too many people can say they own the place that gave them their first job. But that’s exactly the case for David Higgins.

Higgins reopened the Willows Galley in Estevan Village late last year, completing a circle nearly 30 years in the making.

It’s the very same restaurant where a 12-year-old Higgins was once hired by original owner Glen Harper. In keeping with a tried and true restaurant tradition, he started at the bottom and worked his way up.

“I started out peeling the potatoes and doing the dishes and cleaning up afterwards,” said Higgins, now 39. “Then in the summertime Glen trained me on the grill and everything else. By the time I was done here, I had pretty well done everything and learned everything.”

Higgins ended up spending four years at the restaurant, and the experience left an indelible mark.

“Glen and Willows Galley were definitely the one that planted the seed for me to become a chef and go into cooking,” he said.

After learning the ropes as a teenager working at the Galley, Higgins went on to complete his chef’s apprenticeship at the Victoria Golf Club. He subsequently worked in a number of kitchens around the Capital Region, including stints at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel and Government House. When the opportunity arose to purchase the Willows, he jumped at the chance.

“I think that’s what everybody works towards, having their own business or working for themselves, and this one especially because I worked here when I was 12 and it’s got a lot of meaning to me,” Higgins said.

“It feels like being back home.”

And that’s how he wants his customers to feel. There have been two other owners since Harper retired a few years ago – though he still owns the building – and Higgins wanted to make sure the menu reflected the restaurant’s roots. He has removed a few of the more recent additions to the menu and gone back to the staples like fish and chips and seafood chowder that put the restaurant on the map when it first opened in 1978.

“I just want it to be Willows Galley, the way it used to be when Glen had it,” Higgins said. “The feedback has been great because of that. Basically I just want to keep the tradition going.”

Since the grand reopening last Dec. 10, business has been great, Higgins said. He attributes that success to the quality of the food and the restaurant’s neighbourhood atmosphere.

“When I worked here before, (people) always referred to Willows Galley as the Cheers’ kind of atmosphere, where everybody knows your name,” he said. “That’s the way I want to keep it.”