The concept of a neighborhood bar is an interesting discussion. We'd like to have it here at Smile Politely. Bonnie and Paul Dudley wrote a really great piece on a couple of favorites a few years back, and after talking about Huber's and seeing it posted on everyone's favorite social media garbage pail, it got us thinking a bit about neighborhood bars in Champaign-Urbana.
There are plenty, no question. While we want to have that discussion, we'll refrain from listing them because, well, that's the fun in this series.
We're not really interested in truly defining what a "neighborhood bar" is, but we have a decent idea of what constitutes one, or at least puts it in the discussion: dive-y in nature, a gathering place not surrounded by many other bars, relatively affordable, and generally in a residential neighborhood (or at least close to homes where humans reside). It might have a jukebox as well, but not always.
We'll do our best to talk about these neighborhood bars in the near future, but for now we'd like to talk about Bentley's Pub — 419 N. Neil Street (Neil and Washington, essentially) — just on the north end of Downtown Champaign. Surely you know it. We say it is Downtown Champaign's neighborhood bar, it being in a discussion with places like Clark Bar and Tumble Inn, just on the outskirts.
The TL;DR part
Bentley's is, in our view, one of the only spots in Downtown Champaign that counts as a neighborhood bar. Even though it sits up against Wedge, (which, of course, has a bar component) there are houses and apartments literally 10 yards from Bentley's, and is most certainly a dive. Its unpretentious environment makes it a great place for good conversation, tipsy shenanigans, or solo chilling. You'll find everyone from university-types to townie lifers gathering under its high tin ceilings for cheap, cold, probably-not-craft beer or mixed drinks.
In addition to a few of those initial ingredients as a neighborhood bar, one that jumps out right away is its decor, which is simple and to-the-point. There's nothing fancy about the interior, which features high ceilings and dim lighting. The bar is the kind you cozy up to: it's classy, wooden, and not super long, so it's great for quiet one-on-one conversations with a friend or bartender, or for zoning out after work while watching sports and throwing a few back. The big tables are great for meeting large groups for neighborly conversation, and there's a charming little beer garden out back.
Over the last few months, Bentley's has undergone some changes in ownership (though, it did a few years back as well), staffing, and general focus you could say — which for some could be seen as a downside. You know, because people aren't necessarily excited about change all the time, especially when it comes to your local watering hole. New-ish owner Ashley Buerkett has made some solid updates to the place in terms of sheer scope — emphasis on cool, simple cocktails (our drinks were $3-4 on special when we were there, damn), patio hangs, and the occasional live music performance. With that, new head bartender Matt "Fu" Kucera is well equipped to help that long, and with our experience, his cocktails and service were top-notch. You might recall seeing him at Radio Maria once upon a time — and as Seth mentions in that article, his beverages are on point.
As mentioned, changes aren't always welcomed ones, so we'd imagine there are folks out there that are upset about these things. Surely, you can gather initial not-so-friendly reviews on your local social media network. But, that's totally fair if this has been your hang. It happens. By the looks of it, Bentley's won't stop being that place where the every-person can't spend some time. So, that's what we'll say about that.
Bentley's has been running some killer summer specials, which is what we sampled at a recent Smile Politely Editors' meeting. The drinks were pretty varied, but not overly complicated. As we mentioned previously — simple is kind of key here. Admittedly, we let Fu make the call with these drinks — charming and pink as they were, and delish. They weren't on the menu; Fu made them up on the spot when we said we wanted something that tasted "summery", because it was what one would call "hotter than hell" outside at the moment. Fruity, infused vodka and a slosh of ginger beer were definitely involved.
The drink selections offer something for everyone. You'll find homemade slushies, the new hipster favorite; Riggs Beer Company's Hefeweizen, if you feel like going local and fairly upscale; and, of course, every domestic imaginable on tap or by the bottle. Of course, these slushies are a new favorite around town — as they are extremely inviting when it comes to summertime and cool refreshments. Sure, they're pretty fun, and adults should be able to enjoy that sorta thing. While these machines aren't widely available in C-U, there are some of them, and Bentley's is one of those places. We tested out some cinnamon combinations they were trying out, which weren't too overdone with cinnamon liquor to make you squint your eyes and reach for something to cleanse thereafter. Just right, and we'd imagine they've test-driven them enough for them to take flight by now.
Like many C-U neighborhood bars, Bentley's encourages one of the most beloved of Midwestern drinking culture activities: darts. We can't say that we've ever witnessed hours-long darts competitions at Bentley's (it seems that you're more likely to find that at Huber's or Quality), but the boards give you something to do beyond sitting around and slurping alcohol. Bentley's has long been known for its strong karaoke scene, though we've recently learned that the times are changing on that front.
While a staple like karaoke might fall by the wayside for this spot, this patio might be one of the more underappreciated ones in Downtown, where there are many (Barrelhouse 34, Blind Pig Brewery, Quality, Esquire, most notably). These are kind of the best ones out there — nothing too overly complicated, but tucked in the back to take advantage of seclusion and inclusion all at once.
Photo from Bentley's Facebook page.
As sad as the passing of Mike N Molly's is for the Downtown drinking scene, Bentley's is something people should pay attention to that enjoyed aspects of MNMs. Not to say it is even remotely attempting to recreate that vibe, culture, or what-have-you — but outdoor hangs in a pretty cool beergarden, cheap drinks, and solid people occupy this spot. If you're looking for a relaxed hang and want a bit of center-city buzz (or catch one, rather), check it.
Overall, Bentley's might be the best place to start a series like this one, and work our way outward from Downtown Champaign. We'll stumble somewhere next, surely, knowing us drinkin' hounds.
Bentley's Pub's hours are 3 p.m.-2 a.m. all week long.
This article was written by Rebecah Pulsifer and Patrick Singer. All photos by Sam Logan, outside of the top photo and ones otherwise noted.