By Tim McCoy
It was another steamy summer night as bluesy rock chords rang out from the walls at Billy’s Barn in Salem. Inside the crowd was divided. Some hung close to the bar where two friendly female bartenders were pouring drinks and serving up cold beers, including the newest draft offering, the Fresh Squeezed IPA from Deschutes Brewery. The remainder were heating things up further on the dance floor to the sounds of the Steel Cookin’ Band playing the R&B classic “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter So Mean”. Billy’s Barn is known by many as a locals’ place that serves up consistently good American food, most nights with a side of live music. What some don’t know is that it’s also a place steeped in history.
Located at 1790 Thompson Memorial Dr., Billy’s Barn originally opened its doors in 1969. Billy Miles Sr., who erected the original building, operated the eatery until 1993. During those early years, Billy Sr. built a solid reputation for the restaurant, delivering high quality meals and entertainment that established a loyal customer base. Billy Sr. was also a real character, and his personality and reputation made the place a beloved destination. A weekly seafood buffet was such a hit with customers that some of the older patrons still reminiscence about it now 30 years later.
In a recent interview, current manager and Billy Sr.’s grandson, Chad Miles, spoke fondly of his memories, “In the ‘70s and ‘80s this was one of three places that did live music and dance music. The place had a big city feel. Athletic coaches and celebrities, and people in the know, came through these doors.”
In the early ‘90s, business began tailing off. “It was a different era,” said Miles. “A lot more competition came into the valley. Some good-sized restaurants opened downtown, and there were lots of bars opening on Williamson Rd. It became difficult to draw people out here.”
That’s when Billy Sr. began leasing the building. It was a rock & roll hall, “Belly of the Beast”, operated as a Moose Lodge, and was even a Japanese steakhouse for a time. But things have a tendency to return to what they do best, and in 2011 the restaurant reopened as Billy’s Barn, owned and operated by Billy Miles Jr., a prominent high school football coach in the area, with Chad Miles as manager.
While much has changed in the intervening years, Miles says he still deals with a misconception that Billy’s Barn is off the beaten Salem-Roanoke path. In reality, the restaurant is less than a mile from interstate 81, only 1.3 miles from Parkway Brewery, and just 12 minutes from downtown Roanoke.
It’s a perception that’s unfortunate considering what Billy’s Barn offers, not only in good food and drink, but also as a music venue. The acoustics are solid, and the stage and large dance floor provide the right setting for a good time.
“We play everything here, punk, country, Carolina Beach Shag music, hippie jam bands, bluegrass, and solo acoustic. I love to book good, local bands, especially the acoustic acts. They really like the sound they get in this place.”
The reputation has grown regionally with performers and promoters and Miles uses a traditional approach to finding and booking the music.
“We rely on a lot word of mouth. Local bands do a good job of drawing audiences. Mad Iguanas, Groova Scape, Seven Mile Ford always bring in good crowds. Bands who walk in and talk to me or give me a disc are going to get a lot more attention than someone who just emails me.”
Miles also works with local promoters like Jamie Booker, owner of the non-profit The Bazaar, to host bands. In a separate conversation Booker said, “Billy’s has always been very generous to us, and the bands, and that’s rare these days.”
While Miles works hard to bring in both local and regional/national acts, he is keenly aware that the restaurant’s reputation is key to its long-term success. He has made it a central focus to bring high quality food at a good value to his customers. That dedication has paid off and Billy’s Barn consistently gets high marks on sites like Yelp and Zomato, and is ranked on Tripadvisor as #5 out of 76 restaurants in Salem.
“There are patrons that have been coming to Billy’s for 30 years,” said Miles. “The place brings folks from all walks of life. On any given day you can see a lawyer, plumber, car salesman, a school teacher, and a guy who bales hay, all sharing the bar. They come because they know they will get good quality, fair prices, and a comfortable atmosphere.”
Moving forward Miles has plans to expand into the popular food truck business; for its own sake, but also for the positive impression it makes for the restaurant and bar. The bar and music area are scheduled to undergo some renovations this fall which will expand the floor space and make the bar more efficient.
Miles is optimistic about the music scene and business climate of the area. Citing the increase in festivals, breweries, and outdoor venues he stated, “there are a lot of cool things going on, and business breeds business.” He pointed to the diversity of acts that the region has drawn in the last three years, and believes that trend will continue.
While there have undoubtedly been significant changes to the Roanoke Valley restaurant and music scene since Billy’s Barn first opened its doors in 1969, the Miles’ family philosophy of being open to many different musical performers, and creating an atmosphere where customers are always valued, have remained the same. If you like good tunes, a satisfying meal, and quality craft brews, Billy’s Barn is certainly worth a visit.