By Susan Palmer
It’s 2 pm on a Thursday at Billy Mac’s Bar & Grill, a cozy restaurant on the edge of the Friendly Area neighborhood. Billy McCallum is in the narrow kitchen, putting the finishing touches on chocolate cream pies while a big pot of cheddar cheese soup simmers on the stove.
Soon he’ll start paring potatoes and chopping up greens for salads, helping prep for the dinner rush. In a pre-pandemic world, McCallum, who is both owner and chef, would not be doing the kitchen grunt work, but staff shortages have created a new normal.
It’ll be crowded at Billy Mac’s this Thursday evening in early December, more so than usual because word has gotten out. McCallum, a fixture in Eugene restaurants since 1977, will be hanging up his apron. Dec. 23 is the swan song for Billy Mac’s.
Billy Mac’s has a low-key bar-and-grill vibe. The first time you step inside you think you could be in any old joint with a video poker back room, a place where they source their food from a prepackaged supplier. Then the server brings you cheese broils, a delicious and gratis appetizer. Then you order the curry chicken soup from the specials board, and it’s surprisingly complex in its flavorings. Is that, what? Saffron? Yes, yes it is.
Then you discover that they have a nice little tempranillo on the wine menu, and you realize that you’re not just anywhere. At Billy Mac’s everything they serve is made in-house, from the baguettes and grandma’s rolls (yes, McCallum’s grandmother’s recipe) to the chocolate cream pie and bread pudding, dessert staples.
The menu features traditional Northwest fare — pan-fried oysters, prime rib, grilled salmon, various wraps and burgers. The specials board changes nightly. That’s where visitors will find a surprisingly nuanced Portuguese chicken soup, or a Greek-inspired snapper, or a delicately simmered seafood stew.
“We try to emulate a French flair but at the same time we want to be a homey place,” McCallum says.
McCallum learned his trade at his dad’s iconic Treehouse Restaurant, which opened in 1977 and was one of Eugene’s premier fine-dining establishments until it closed 22 years later. The senior Bill McCallum, whose six kids all labored one time or another at the restaurant, put 16-year-old Billy to work in the kitchen under French-trained chef Amir Faizi, an exacting teacher, McCallum recalls.
By the time he was 21, McCallum was the Treehouse’s head chef. Other chefs who came and went brought techniques and recipes that Billy absorbed over the years. But he is otherwise self-taught. Eventually, he and his brother Patrick McCallum opened Mac’s, the nightclub and restaurant at the Veterans Memorial Building.
In 2008, they bought the former Jake’s Place, right beside the Little Y Market at the corner of 19th Avenue and Jefferson, and it became Billy Mac’s. The brothers’ diverging interests (Billy was about the food and Patrick was about the nightclub) prompted the two to go their separate ways in 2010.
“We said, ‘Let’s just be brothers,’ Patrick McCallum says, “and it was the very best thing for our relationship.”
Talk with Billy Mac’s customers and you discover the expected dismay.
“I’ve been coming here for years,” says Tom Green, sitting at the bar with friends. “Billy’s been by far the best,” he adds. “My hope is that he sells it. It’s a great low-key place for a quick bite.”
“It’s great food, reasonably priced,” says Jim Hoffman, who likes McCallum’s food so much, he’s had him as the caterer at two of his children’s weddings. “Bill’s a great guy. He makes you feel at home.”
Hoffman reserved a table for 16 on Billy Mac’s last night.
One of Hoffman’s friends, Mike Braun, a newcomer to Billy Mac’s, is shocked that the restaurant will be shutting down.
“It shouldn’t be a one-off,” he says. “It’s that good.”
And it’s more than the food, Hoffman and Braun say — the friendly atmosphere, the way the staff have of remembering people and preferences is impressive.
“They know your name, and they make you feel welcome,” Hoffman says.
The fact that Billy Mac’s survived the pandemic so far makes its closure now seem surprising, but McCallum’s health is the problem. At 60, he has congestive heart failure, and his doctors have told him it’s time to ease up.
While he’ll miss the work and the people, McCallum won’t mind owning his day.
“I can get up in the morning and go for a drive, go and read with my grandson,” he says.
He says he expects that he’ll continue to be engaged in the community — he’s been an easy touch for fundraisers for years, catering the annual auction for Marist Catholic High School at a significant discount. And he taught cooking classes at Pepperberries for 20 years. But none of that is in his immediate future. Not right away.
The challenges of the pandemic and the economic uncertainties made the decision to close easier, he says.
As for building itself, it’s been home to other restaurants and will likely be again, McCallum says. There’s been some interest in the space from others who recognize the value of a neighborhood eatery. But it won’t any longer be Billy Mac’s.
Susan Palmer is a Eugene freelance writer who lives in the Friendly neighborhood.