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Wilson’s brings live music, food, and a night out for grown-ups to South Jersey

The restaurant and nightclub in Hi-Nella is a career shift for chemical engineer Mark Wilson and art gallery owner Mame Wilson.

Mame and Mark Wilson, who live in South Jersey, are behind Wilson's Restaurant & Live Music Lounge, 709 S. Warwick Rd., Hi-Nella, N.J.
Mame and Mark Wilson, who live in South Jersey, are behind Wilson's Restaurant & Live Music Lounge, 709 S. Warwick Rd., Hi-Nella, N.J.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

Why would a chemical engineer and the owner of an art gallery get into the club business?

It was a natural career progression, said Mark Wilson, a scientist with a long career in plastics, natural fuels, and rocket fuels. As the son of a Chicago jazz club owner, he also had a passion for hospitality.

Several years ago, he relocated to South Jersey, where his wife, Mame Wilson, owns LaBelle Art Gallery, specializing in works by Black artists from both the U.S. and Africa; it is now in Voorhees after five years in Haddonfield.

» READ MORE: From our archives: A South Jersey art gallery devoted to African art

Camden County, they found, lacked a destination for food and live music, specifically jazz and blues. When they wanted a night out, they would head north and west from their home in Williamstown to Philadelphia or east and south to Atlantic City, each about 45 minutes away.

In April 2019, Mark Wilson, now 53, retired from ExxonMobil and decided to take the plunge into the restaurant business. The couple set out to find a building and heard about a long-vacant club — formerly Richeez’s, Hi-Nella Inn, Balloons, and Duke’s — next to Sterling High School in Hi-Nella.

The place was a dump.

Mame Wilson, 55, whose first name is pronounced “MAY-mee,” said that when they pulled up on Warwick Road to meet the real estate agent, “I didn’t want to look inside. I was afraid. This is not the building for me, but Mark was like, ‘No. This is the building. It has potential, and this is what we’re going to do with it.’”

Two years and $2 million later, after gutting the space, refurbishing it (including paintings of Black musicians from their personal collection), adding killer acoustics and lighting, and waiting out most of the pandemic, the couple opened Wilson’s Restaurant & Live Music Lounge on Dec. 3.

Wilson’s is vast — 250 seats, 35 of which are set around a rectangular bar with tables arranged to face the stage. In spring, an additional 100 seats will serve customers on two outdoor patios.

The building, incidentally, also came with a liquor license that allows the club to be open until 5 a.m., and the Wilsons are staying open till 3:30 a.m. on the weekends. Wilson’s is designed as a supper club, targeted to a mature audience, they said. The live music wraps about 11 p.m., and then a DJ spins dance music.

There is no cover charge on Wednesdays and most Sundays, when DJs are scheduled. On Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and occasional Sundays, Wilson’s will have a cover charge for live performances, and all guests need to purchase tickets online or at the door for entry. Dinner and drinks are not included in the cover, except for special events like New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and other holidays.

The Wilsons have retained Philadelphia-raised chef Elijah Milligan, whose long resume includes Stateside (where at age 24 he was named executive chef in 2013) and more recently the Cooking for the Culture series, which put the spotlight on Black chefs, and the future Greenwood Social Club, a supper club inspired by Tulsa, Okla.’s Black Wall Street. His menu of New Orleans-inspired Southern dishes includes crab cake egg rolls, oxtail grilled cheese, Old Bay wings, grilled lamb chops, and lobster gumbo.

Music producer Nancie Manning is curating the acts.

Mark Wilson is running the day-to-day, leaving the financials to Mame Wilson. One of five girls, she immigrated from Senegal with her family just after high school, and to fund her degree in international marketing at Baruch College in New York City, she sold imported masks and clothing to fellow students. She first ran her gallery in Brooklyn with a sister. After 9/11, she and her first husband, Scott, decided to move out of New York and found their way to South Jersey. He died of leukemia in 2014. She opened LaBelle two years later.

Mark Wilson, who said his family still runs the Chicago clubs, said the restaurant business fits his personality. “I just enjoy people and creating memories and making friends,” he said.

Wilson’s Live’s hours are 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 6 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday (including jazz brunch).