It’s a big week for Justin Davis. Aside from the fact that the bar that he helped to restore, Fat City, is having it’s Grand Opening this weekend, his wife just gave birth to their first child, a baby daughter named Iris. Needless to say, it’s a time to celebrate.
Davis grew up in southeast Urbana and went to grade school at Yankee Ridge Elementary where his mom has been in an administrative role since he was enrolled. After graduating from Urbana High School, Davis enrolled at Parkland College and while knocking out his general education courses, fell in love with Angela Hunt, a graduate of Central High in Champaign. She was attending Illinois State University, and he didn’t need much convincing to transfer. After he completed his degree in Psychology, he did the least obvious thing you would think of: he skipped the chaise lounge and went to work for his father in furniture sales and re-upholstery.
His father has helped run — and now owns — part of Beck’s Country Shoppe on Route 45 in Urbana for the better part of 35 years. His brother, Lance, works out there as well. It was through this intense familial bond that the new Fat City Bar and Grill (not saloon) became a reality.
After Davis married Hunt in 2006, his relationship with his in-laws, Regan and John Phillips, flourished as well. And they are no strangers to the bar business. Phillips is a partner at C.O. Daniels, the infamous campustown hangout known alongside Kam’s for being a place where college kids cut their teeth at playing hard at night. Regan knows the business too, and as a former bartender at the old Fat City, this opportunity prompted her to want to get in as well.
The family is a close, tight-knot group, and one that has been part of the area for a millenia. It understands what it means to earn a hard dollar, and such effort shows in the new bar. Every last detail, from the Midwestern backsplash behind the bar, to the brand new wooden paneling, was installed by the family. The building was gutted and redone completely, and it’s a remarkable transformation. It now holds the distinguished honor of being the bar in town with the most flat screens per square foot. There may be no better place to watch the big game than the new Fat City Bar and Grill.
It’s no longer a saloon. This place has charm and class.
We got a chance to ask Justin Davis about the who, what, where and when of his new family venture just before the bar has it’s Grand Opening.
Smile Politely: What prompted you to re-open Fat City?
Justin Davis: This is something me, my brother and brother-in-law had talked about in the past and the opportunity came up, so we jumped on it. It seems like everyone we talk to has a story about the building or some tie to the bar, whether it goes all the way back to the Alley Cat days or when it was Fat City Saloon. The same goes for the three of us, as well. My wife and Regan worked up here years ago. This was actually one of the bars I came to the night I turned 19. This wasn’t like we were buying just any bar. This bar has personal meaning to all of us. It seemed like a shame to have it sitting empty.
Smile Politely: What made you keep the name?
Justin Davis: For better or worse, everyone knows the name. Those who remember the shape it was in before it closed may have their suspicions about the bar, but after they stop by, I’m confident they will be pleasantly surprised and will again make this place a local favorite.
Smile Politely: Fat City’s location (near the intersection of Green and Neil) begs the questions: Is this a college bar, or a downtown bar? Or will it continue to try to bridge the gap between the two?
Justin Davis: We definitely want everyone to feel welcome here. This place has always had a great local following, and we intend to keep it that way. We want the guy with concrete mortar on his work pants to stop in for lunch or after work. We want the Central High School staff to continue coming in for dinner. But I also think we provide a setting that college students will appreciate. We’ve got the only shuffleboard table in town, as well as brand new pool tables, dartboards, videogames and a jukebox that can play virtually any song you can think of. And then again, I feel we offer the atmosphere and food that will compare to any bar downtown, along with prices that will be kind on the college student’s wallet. Not to mention, we have free parking which is something downtown is lacking these days.
Smile Politely: The menu has significantly changed. Who made the call to try to be a little more menu-oriented?
Justin Davis: Every decision and choice we made was a group effort, but my brother-in-law, John, had the most input and foresight to put more emphasis on the dining experience at Fat City. We all agreed that it was more important to scale the menu way down and make sure that what we did offer will be worth talking about.
Smile Politely: No L-shaped pool table? What else is different from the old Fat City?
Justin Davis: No, no L-shaped pool table this time. We tried to change about as much as we could without knocking down walls. Anyone who remembers the old Fat City will be able to attest to the fresh new look we’ve given it. About the only thing we didn’t change were the light fixtures. But we still wanted to be known as a sports bars, so we added 15 new flatscreens to make sure you can see the game from any seat.
Smile Politely: Will there be live music in the beer garden come summer? What kinds of bands are you hoping to attract?
Justin Davis: One of the greatest features of the bar is the enormous beer garden. As soon as the weather warms up, we intend on providing as much live music as we can. We plan on keeping the bands we book fairly diverse. We want bands that cover classic rock hits, play the blues or bands that you could only hear on WPGU 107.1.
Smile Politely: Have you noticed a change in your lifestyle yet?
Justin Davis: Aside from having a baby girl yesterday? Yes, owning a bar comes with a whole new set of responsibilities and stresses. You worry about your financial investment, what people think about your establishment as well as still trying to maintain your day job, just to name a few.
Smile Politely: Do you feel like the sliding economy could affect the bar’s ability to get off the ground?
Justin Davis: There’s no denying that we’ve reached a point in our lives where we have to rethink how we spend our money. There’s no doubt that going out to eat is one of the many activites people are cutting back on. I still feel that people will find a way to get out of the house from time to time. For their own sanity they need to, and bars have always been a great place to take time off and meet up with friends and family.
Smile Politely: Tell us about the Grand Opening this weekend? Specials coming up soon?
Justin Davis: The Illinettes will be here to hang out and sign autographs on Thursday, and on Friday we are giving away 4 A-section tickets to Rascal Flatts. There will be a free shuttle bus to go to and from the concert. Saturday night, Candy Foster is playing. There will also be giveaways all weekend from Miller Lite. We have great food and drink specials daily. Sundays are $1.50 drafts and $2 burgers. And on Friday we feature Paul Long’s Fish sandwich. It’s a classic Champaign tradition that we just had to carry on.
Fat City Bar and Grill is located at 505 S. Chestnut St. Champaign, Ill. They are open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week.