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Restaurateur James Willett Dies

James Andrew Willett, 77, a restaurant manager and wine expert, has died in Orange of cardiac complications connected to Alzheimer’s disease.

Willett, born in Pennsylvania and reared in a Troy, N.Y., orphanage, attended La Salle Military Institute and served in Normandy during World War II. After working in New York’s textile industry, he moved to Southern California in 1960.

With his partner, veteran Times wine columnist Robert Lawrence Balzer, Willett built and operated the award-winning Tirolean restaurant in Idyllwild. Among their clients were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Marlon Brando and Gloria Swanson.

Willett and Balzer later turned their talents to the Villa Fontana restaurant in Orange, and Willett went on to work as food and beverage director at the Grand Hotel in Anaheim.

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He later managed Sequoia Cellars and the Bob Burns restaurant in Newport Beach, and became founding director of the Wine Exchange.


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