MERIDIAN — After serving lunch on October 4, 2001, Weidmann’s, Meridian’s historic (since 1870) downtown landmark restaurant, closed its doors. It reopened to wide acclaim New Year’s Eve, 2002 — about four months late. But there’s no lunch in this new life.
Tall, bespectacled, soft-spoken Willie McGehee is the enigmatic operator of the reinvented Weidmann’s that offers fine dining. Regarding no lunch service and other radical changes, he quotes Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”: “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
Contrary to most chefs and restaurateurs, if McGehee has an ego, it’s not apparent. If he has a title, he declines to share it with a reporter. He backs that up with, “Something my mom told me, ‘Live a clean life and keep your name out of the paper and you’ll be okay.’” But he has a strong vision of where Weidmann’s is, where he wants it to be and the restaurant’s rich history.
McGehee opines that the three things his customers remember are, “(1) The first taste, and that may be the greeting at the door or their first bite, (2) the last taste, and (3) the condition of the ladies’ room.” His staff’s expertise in the kitchen and hospitality take care of the first two. The plush ladies’ room-that will soon have additional touches-take care of the last.
The treasured name
Referring to retaining the Weidmann’s name, despite all the changes, McGehee calls it “An American icon,” and goes on to say, “It would have been foolish to thumb your nose at 130 years of history and tradition. The community got involved to save Weidmann’s and that’s what it’s about.”
When he mentions “the community,” he’s talking about those 58 Weidmann’s, LLC, stockholders who coughed up $20,000 each to save the landmark institution. “They could have built two restaurants in half the time for the same amount of money,” he observed. Those funds paid for the building and the extensive renovations.
The changes begin at the entrance — moved from the southwest corner to the northwest corner. A maitre d’ greets customers alongside a temperature controlled wine cellar. There’s an exposed modern kitchen with the latest equipment including rotisserie ovens. The dining room seating has banquettes (McGehee calls that “A fancy name for benches”) in addition to the normal table seating. Shining crystal glasses are placed meticulously at each setting.
The imposing 11-inch by 17-inch, two-tone menu is printed daily on quality tan paper marked by the restaurant’s new logo. The food items are on one side and the wine and champagne list is on the other. And, yes, for the big spenders, there’s a $300 bottle of Brut champagne — the rest of the bottles go for normal price expectations. Note: There’s also a Weidmann’s card that mentions “Hedonistic Desserts” and “Martinis, Martinis, Martinis.” Neither card nor menu contains McGehee’s name.
There are subtle daily changes in the menu, but the two certain listings to date have been a “starter” of grilled Georgia quail on grits and a dessert of vanilla bean cr