Sitting inside, a wave of excitement and enthusiasm overtakes me. I feel like I could be anywhere, in the middle of a bustling city perhaps, the people strolling past the open front windows just a few of the millions outside. My eyes can’t seem to settle on just one place. They dart from the shine of the colander light fixtures to the tin roof that covers the bar. They follow the dangerously enticing-looking fries in the waitress’ hands and then move to scan the hundreds of beer bottles lining the walls. Is it just me, or did I magically get transported to some city far away when I walked through that door? “Sometimes people come inside and say, ‘wow, I don’t even feel like I’m in Harrisonburg anymore,” says Aaron Ludwig, owner of Billy Jack’s Wing and Draft Shack. Well Aaron, I am one of those people.
Billy Jack’s, which opened in July, is Harrisonburg’s newest bar and restaurant and a sister restaurant to Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint, which opened in April of 2009. Both are the creations of Aaron Ludwig and Mike Sabin, childhood friends who, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, set out to follow a dream of opening up a bar together. With Aaron’s business skills and Mike’s professional culinary experiences, Jack Brown’s became an instant hit in downtown. But recently, they’ve expanded to create Billy Jack’s. “We’ve been talking about doing this for a while now, so we put our heads together to come up with new concepts,” says Aaron. And although similar to Jack Brown’s in some respects, Billy Jack’s has many unique features that make stand out.
For starters, the venue is much bigger, which allows for more bar and dining space and for the opportunity to carry a wider selection of beers. It also gave room for extreme creativity in terms of decorating. “We talked about ideas for decoration every day,” says Aaron.” We wanted to create a place that we would like to hang out in. Not necessarily a date place for a fancy, sit-down meal but a cool place to have a fun time.” And the atmosphere definitely is fun; if it isn’t the clothesline of bras suspended above the bar that brings about a spirited mood, maybe it’s the disco ball and buffalo head hanging from the ceiling and wall. Aaron and Mike also wanted to reuse and recycle in their design and used anything from their beer can to bottle cap collections to fill wall space. “We also didn’t want to use drywall in the construction,” mentions Aaron, an innovative and green outlook that led to the multicolored doors that make up the right interior wall. “Something like decoration can only be done once, and we wanted to get it right.”
Also like Jack Brown’s, Billy Jack’s keeps with the idea of a small, minimalist menu, but with some changes. “Beer is the main focus of Billy Jack’s so we picked food that would go good with beer.” Hence, the short but sweet menu of wings, fries, and doughnuts. But with a chef with 18 years of culinary experience on board, these options are far from ordinary. Daily special sauces for the wings and tenders include a Jack Daniels sauce, a Coca-Cola sauce, and a Jamaican jerk sauce. Fries are topped with not only chili and cheese but mac-n-cheese and bacon or classic pizza flavors. And the doughnuts, fried to order, get dressed up with combos like Nutella and bacon or peanut butter, chocolate, and toasted marshmallows. And if that’s not great enough, Aaron ensures that the ingredients are top-quality. The mac-n-cheese and all sauces are made in-house, the bacon is cut straight from the slab right before frying, and they are working on developing a handmade brioche bun for chicken sandwiches. “We always want to do something different, we are always changing and love being creative and trying new things,” says Aaron.
But Aaron is most excited about the opportunity Billy Jack’s has for offering a wider selection of craft beers. This is where his true passions and interests lie. “Our drafts change constantly and anytime we replace one, it’s with something new.” And though only a few months old, Billy Jack’s is already becoming a known statewide bar, a status that gives them access to many beers that other bars can’t offer. “We are only one of three locations in Virginia that offers cask ale in its natural state,” Aaron proclaims proudly. Their enthusiasm for showcasing as many craft beers as possible also allows for Billy Jack’s to host beer events. “We try to have events once or twice a week, like having release parties for new breweries,” he says. The seasons allow for beer innovation as well. Football season brings in people looking for a place to have a drink and wings while they watch the game and Aaron is selling seasonal pumpkin ales.
And this weekend (October 6th-8th, 2011) Billy Jack’s and Jack Brown’s will be celebrating Oktoberfest. They will feature several German beers on draft (available in liter mugs), a sausage platter of 4 different German sausages, and to top it all off, staff will wear traditional German attire for an overall festive atmosphere. Check out their facebook page for pictures and more infomation.
It is obvious that Aaron and Mike have already established themselves as important figures in the Harrisonburg community. Although their two bars are new, their successes are boundless and their impact substantial. “It’s neat to be recognized in the Harrisonburg community and we appreciate all the recognition for our efforts,” Aaron says humbly. Aaron also has enjoyed watching this town become almost a brand in itself in the way that it is getting recognized and being placed on the map. “Its very cool to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. In Harrisonburg, it’s not just you and your restaurant but we all work together, side-by-side.”
So make sure you stop by Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint and Billy Jack’s Wing and Draft Shack tonight and tomorrow night for some Oktoberfest fun. I went for a visit last night and take it from me, you do not want to miss this opportunity. It’s the best way to spend a beautiful fall evening!
Katie George is the Promotions Intern for fall of 2011. She is a senior Media Arts & Design major at James Madison University.
All photographs © 2011 Katie George