As a couple who has worked and played in Downtown Champaign for a combined total of ten (or so) years, I think it's pretty safe to say we like it. Over the years, Paul and I have found lifelong friends, unforgettable meals, fantastic local music, and most importantly each other, all in the space of a few city blocks. We all have it pretty good here, I have to say, but there comes a time when the comfortable bubble of familiar beers and faces finds us wanting something a little different. With that in mind, this week we’re taking a look at a few of our favorite neighborhood bars — The Neighbors at the Ice House, Huber’s, and the Clark Bar.
NEIGHBORS AT THE ICE HOUSE
The Neighbors at the Ice House was originally opened as a grocery store in 1927, making it one of the oldest local businesses in town. A friend of ours is moving to a home a block away, so we were eager to check out her soon-to-be neighborhood bar.
As we stepped inside, I was immediately struck by how small it is. With a few tables in the front and back, and only about ten seats at the bar, the Ice House immediately felt a bit awkward and claustrophobic. This melted away as soon as we sidled up to the bar.
Jim, our bartender, offered us a piece of his graduation cake and laughed along with us at a particularly ridiculous episode of Inside Edition. The owner, a lovely woman named Diane, immediately became a new friend. She sat down next to us at the bar and we all had a nice long conversation — the kind of comfortable, unassuming conversation that onlookers would guess was between old friends.
Recently, when the Ice House and Huber’s proposed their new Sunday hours, many members of the community-at-large made huge claims about these bars having a negative effect on the neighborhoods around them. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Diana has found a way to use Sundays to give back to the community.
She told us a great story of a friendly sports-style bet between her and a regular. He lost and had to sit outside on their flower-box-wagon, in a rainbow wig, shirtless, holding a sign declaring his love for the winning team. Despite his public humiliation, the regular decided to up the ante — customers that night were encouraged to donate a dollar to the Humane Society, and the gentleman matched every dollar donated. They raised a few hundred dollars, and were so thrilled with the results that Diane has decided to keep it going, using as many Sundays as possible as an opportunity to raise funds for local charities.
The patio is noisy, the inside is cramped, they don’t serve food or have live music, and that’s why I can’t wait to go back. (BLD)
I’ve rarely been to a pub that was as charming and authentic as Huber’s. Nestled into a quiet neighborhood next to Eisner Park, they sell candy to the kids and grown up candy to the grownups in the same idyllic location that the building has sat since 1918. Huber’s is in great shape for its age — generations of local pub goers have kept the place full, and they have been rewarded with many renovations, including a huge sun room with plenty of extra seating and a newly completed patio in front.
Any habitual dart player in town will have spent time in the back room where the four dart board lanes are surrounded with trophies and accolades from past championships — some as long ago as the sixties.
They serve your typical bar food — a variety of burgers and sandwiches, pizza, and a bunch of stuff you can throw in a deep fryer, made to order by the same nice lady that just cracked open your beer.
Huber’s is a perfect place to sit and catch up with an old friend, pop into for a quick adult beverage, or to pick up a 12-pack for your friend's BBQ up the street. (PD)
They have Hot Dumps. Hot Asian Dumplings. (BLD)
This place has a lot of character. Up the stairs and under the awning is a huge, dark space filled with low cushioned seating, throw pillows, and coffee tables. Just beyond is a known, yet somehow unknown music venue. The stage, set back into the corner of a blackened room, has seen many of C-U's local music acts over the years, and you can occasionally see a familiar name if you keep an eye out on the right night.
The Clark Bar has two main attractions in my mind. First is the beer garden. Nestled into a pleasant patio, with an outdoor tiki bar and plenty of tables, you and your group can sit back under a canopy of trees and honestly forget you’re in Champaign. Live acts are also featured regularly outside.
The other main attraction is ribs. But wait, you say, this town is teeming with places to get good ribs. Well, now it's got one more, and this place is right up there with the best in town. Though it is pretty tough to beat the fare of a certain pitch-colored canine across town, the Clark Bar’s Wednesday and Friday rib special did not disappoint this self-appointed barbecue snob. Neither did anything else on the menu. The crab cakes, wings, pork sandwich — everything was fresh, well proportioned, and extremely tasty. (PD)
Okay, so this place is basically a house. And it feels that way, but it's great. I’ve always described the interior as, “Your neighbor's rec room in the 80s.” Or, “A massive cocaine yacht ... in the 80s.” Yes, the decor feels very 80s, but that just adds to the Clark Bar’s ability to transport you to a place that doesn’t feel like Champaign, or this decade.
I will say, without a doubt, the Clark Bar’s beer garden is my favorite in town. Thick ivy covering most of the building, tons of lush, green plants, tiki-style decorations, and a secluded setting combine to completely make you forget where you are. Just then, the smell of ribs brings you back to your senses.
Every Wednesday and Friday, the chef fires up a smoker/grill out back, throws a whole bunch of meat in it, and lets it go all night. You can order a 1⁄3, 1⁄2, or full slab, and they’re served over a heaping mound of fries with a huge cup of barbecue sauce and a side of slaw. After our first experience at the Clark Bar, we felt an intense urge to spread the word. We came back the next week with six more friends, gorged on meat, and now they won’t stop talking about it.
Though the Clark Bar has changed hands and names several times over the years, I’ve only ever been there as it is now, and during the day. There seems to be plenty of nice, “5 o’clock beer and a slab of ribs” kind of folk, but if you’re into the nighttime scene, be warned that the crowd can be a bit unpredictable.
That being said, this place has quickly become one of my go-tos for a cold Negro Modelo, a feast, and a good time with friends. (BLD)
All in all, the great spots downtown notwithstanding, it’s really nice to have a change of scenery, an adventure, or find a new favorite. These places are more than worth taking a look at. If you’re going to call yourself a resident, it’s important to get out there and meet your neighbors. All three of these local dives have rich histories, some that extend back to the beginnings of the city. Discussing these places with people has brought up all sorts of interesting stories and conversations, and I’ve purposely left out most of them hoping that it will inspire at least a few people to go find out for themselves.
Go to the Ice House, grab a beer and see if Diane is around. Drink a super-sized frosty mug of beer, eat a basket-o-dumps, and listen to hilarious stories from the umpire that just finished up a Little League game across the street. (It was so funny.) Or better yet, it’s Friday! Get your ass to the Clark Bar for some of those ribs! We’ll probably be there!
The Neighbors at the Ice House is located at 703 N. Prospect Avenue. Hours: Everyday from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Huber’s is located at 1312 W. Church Street. Hours: Every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The Clark Bar is located at 207 W. Clark Street. Hours: Tuesday–Saturday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.