Billie-Jean: A Family Affair
Written By Johnny Fugitt
Photography By Carmen Troesser
Billie-Jean is the newest member of Zoe Robinson’s family of restaurants, but, in a way, it feels like the head of the family.
Robinson is best known for her popular Bar Les Freres (French for brothers) and I Fratellini (Italian for little brothers) – each referencing her sons. Billie-Jean, named for her mother and father, completes the Wydown Boulevard family tree.
“Billie-Jean took three years to conceive,” says Robinson. “I coveted that space and hounded the landlord for quite some time. I sold my restaurant BoBo Noodle House in order to free up more time and to keep all three restaurants on the same block.”
Along with a knack for developing striking spaces, Robinson is associated with Asian food from her former Zoe’s Pan-Asian Café and BoBo Noodle House. Billie-Jean’s mostly-American menu includes notes of this Asian influence with items such as the lacquered pork belly lettuce wraps with hot and sour dipping sauce. The menu doesn’t reach for a new concept. Rather, it’s a culinary expression of Robinson and her longtime partner in the kitchen, chef Ny Vongsaly.
“Ny Vongsaly and I are like brother and sister,” says Robinson, “except we don’t fight. We can complete each other’s sentences. We work on menus together, but he does all of the execution. We both have pretty good senses of humor so it’s a lot of fun and we get to eat! He is a wonderful chef and person. I could not be luckier to work with him.”
Robinson’s parents were avid art collectors who cultivated Zoe’s sense of style and attention to detail. Her father, Jean, passed away when she was young, but Zoe remembers his regard for great meals. “I think that he would appreciate what we have created,” she says.
As any mother would, Billie loves the new restaurant – particularly the braised short rib. “She is sharp and beautiful,” Zoe proudly shares of her mother. “She raised my sisters and I with a good work ethic and inspired all of us to be independent, strong women.”
This intrepidness greets Billie-Jean’s guests immediately as they enter the stunning new space. “Black is my color,” says Robinson who describes the color palate as “using layers of black.” Working with designer David Richardson, the pair created a space that is both urbane and affable.
As much as she pours herself into the restaurants, the highs and lows resonate deeply with Robinson. “I’m very hands-on and my staff is all like family. It’s not easy for me to accept criticism or bad reviews online. It’s really hard on me.”
Opening a restaurant is a highly scrutinized and inherently stressful undertaking, but, so far, it’s been mostly highs for Billie-Jean. “The energy we’ve created between the three places is infectious,” shares Robinson. What is one to do with half-full drinks when a table is ready next door? “Just take them with you,” is Robinson’s response. “We’ll retrieve the glassware later.” It’s this kind of experience and hospitality customers remember.
Family isn’t less than blood, but it’s so much more. It’s those to whom we turn in times of trouble; it’s those with whom we share our deepest joys. We anchor our lives to family and Zoe Robinson created a trio of Clayton restaurants reflecting her relationships with her sons, chef, staff, customers and, now, her parents - Billy and Jean.