The diner on Main Street in Downtown Champaign is open once again, now as The Space restaurant owned by Ian Nutting and Doug Hodge, the pair behind Weird Meat Boyz craft hot sauce. Inside the old Merry Ann’s Diner, the renovated space has murals by Champaign-Urbana artists, tables made by the Amish, bar by a local woodworker, and a vintage pulpit for a host stand. The owners left Merry Ann’s neon lights and the diner’s charm of a seat with a view of cooks on the griddle. Since 2021, Hodge and Nutting have brought weird, delicious food to the area, most recently with the Weird Meat Boyz Kitchen inside of Collective Pour bar which closed in November 2022. They also have served dishes out of a food truck in Mahomet and competed twice in the Artisan Cup & Fork event (2021 and 2022).
Now, Hodge and Nutting have their very own restaurant called The Space, but it’s more than a restaurant; it’s also a music venue, blending the owners’ two passions. The Raging Nathans have already christened The Space as the venue’s first show, and last Thursday, the restaurant opened with the Smashy McSmashface burger on the menu. Last Saturday, five bands played at the diner-concert venue, and now The Space restaurant is now open four days a week for lunch and dinner service.
I sat down with the two owners and bar manager Olivia Orlandi. The three talked about the restaurant’s menu of — what they lovingly call — “classy trashy” food, Jeppson’s Malört on tap, and who painted all the murals.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: What’s the main draw of The Space: the restaurant or the venue?
Ian Nutting: I hope it is impossible to decide. I really do. I hope that people have a really interesting, nice meal and also finish with a punk show right after. We want this to be a clash of our ideas of what’s good in this world. We want you to order a Chicago handshake and a nice steak — and for it to be on the menu, for it to be weird, and to embrace that.
It’s all about the total sensorial shift into The Space. We wanted walking in to be like — it’s noise, and you can’t see because of the frosted door. Then you open the door, and you’re hit with neons, with the artwork, with all that stuff.
SP: What’s on the menu at the new place?
Doug Hodge: Classy-trashy food.
Nutting: Juxtaposing bougie and bacchanalia, total indulgence and hedonism with elements of fun. For dinner, if diners want to come in and get a reasonably prized burger and a tall boy, you can do that. If you want to drop $100 on some bougie stuff that Doug and I randomly think of, then you also can do that.
SP: What about the drinks?
Olivia Orlandi: The cocktails are all just as fun as the food. There will be some speciality cocktails, but it’s going to be beer heavy — tall boy cans and local beer on draft. We’re definitely sticking to the classics for beer, but we’ll have a couple craft options for anyone who’s interested in them.
We’re also going to have Malört on draft, and I think having Malört on tap is so awesome and something fun for people to try. Even if they’re not a fan of Malört, it’s something fun for people to talk about.
SP: You’re probably the only bar in town with Malört on tap.
Nutting: As far as we know.
SP: Will The Space have wine?
Nutting: Yes, we’ll be working with Thad Morrow next door at Ladro Enoteca. He’s someone who was integral to getting us to this point.
Every part of the menu will limited. The cocktails, the food, the beer. We’re not trying to be the place that has everything. Our menu will be small, front and back, and that’ll be what it is.
We have a host stand which is a hundred year old pulpit that we got from ReStore. I think it was the hostess stand for Alexander’s Steakhouse, but it also was literally a pulpit at one point. From what we can tell — the way the joints are put together — it looks like it could be really old. We’re toying with the idea of getting our graffiti artist to graffiti it, and it would be the total encapsulation of our space: classic traditional mold but irreverent art on top.
SP: I need to know. Will Smashy McSmashface be on the menu?
Nutting: Yeah, that’s the one.
Hodge: That and the kimchi burger.
Nutting: Oklahoma for lunch, too. The kimchi and Smashy were such hits, and Smashy was from our food truck days. That will still be here for lunch and dinner. Smashy won’t go away.
SP: Good, because I love that burger. I noticed there’s no fries or tots on the new menu. What’s up with that?
Hodge: We’re going to do house-made chips. We’ll have flavors.
Nutting: Doug’s been workshopping chips for awhile. We want to do the salt and vinegar style chips, and we want to come up with a house flavor. We’re going for chips over fries for a lot of reasons.
SP: Wait, for real, no fries?
Hodge: No fries, no tots.
Nutting: There will be no fries. One of the main things is keeping it simple and allowing us to put our energy into making sure everything is top notch. We didn’t love that we sourced frozen fries from Sysco at Collective Pour — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we didn’t love that for our vibe. With the chips, it allows us to make a house-made product and curate the entire thing. If you make your own fries, it’s time-consuming in like a way that chips is not as time-consuming.
Hodge: As far as seasonings go, I dehydrated some kimchi and some of our barbecue sauces to make a barbecue powder. I also did sumac — that was pretty good.
Nutting: We’re trying to bring crafty chips to the table.
Hodge: Along with the fast casual lunch menu, we will have a dinner menu with burgers and casual stuff and also higher end stuff. In the future, starting in June probably, we’ll have four seats reserved at the bar for diners to do a five-course tasting menu with an optional wine pairing. You’ll sit at the end of the bar and watch us cook. It’s fun, and you can try out different stuff.
Nutting: Yeah, a lot of the dishes will come out on trays with some parchment paper, harkening back to our barbecue roots. Also, craft pub kind of thing. These are actual quarter sheet trays, so they’re hard, they’re not gonna break. We’re getting plates for some of the items that would feel better on a plate.
One of the appetizers we want to have is a lamb belly bites, Vietnamese style, and we’ll use brown sugar and fish sauce. We did variations of this at Collective Pour, and that was like a preamble, a prelude to what we’re doing now, testing the waters of what we can do, and now we know it kind of works with pork belly. What if we use lamb belly? It’s more interesting.
Hodge: We want to have this [appetizer] called fish and chips. It’ll be our potato chips with caviar and crème fraîche, and I want to call it fish and chips, but I’m worried people will be like, “Why is it not fried fish?” We’ve got a lot of cool stuff that we’ve never been able to do before. We can do whatever we want here.
SP: Will your menu at The Space rotate like it did at The Kitchen?
Hodge: I don’t think it will rotate as often as Collective Pour. Here, I want the menu to be more of a seasonal thing with local produce. I don’t want people to miss out on things. At Collective Pour, people would get bummed out if they missed a special burger or they’d say, “I wish I was there for ramen night.”
Nutting: I mean, we made twenty portions, and that was it.
We hope to have appetizers that we might do something silly with, like the Malört-ysters. Basically, turning Malört into caviar-sized balls like agar. We’ll serve a raw oyster with Malört pearls and a grapefruit slice. I don’t know what that’ll cost, but it’ll be expensive. The prices will be all over the place depending on what kind of experience you want. We don’t want to alienate anyone from this space.
Hodge: We want everyone to feel welcome. You can come in here and have a cheap date, or you can have a really expensive date night — and no one is going to judge you for either one.
Nutting: I would do the cheap one.
Hodge: I would do the same.
Nutting: Oh, and we will not be doing reservations. Walk in only.
SP: And if there’s a wait, people can sit in this nice lounge.
Nutting: Exactly. You can play a record or check out some hot sauce.
SP: This used to be Merry Ann’s Diner, yeah?
Nutting: Yeah, we took the diner feel, but the diner had a lot of constraints. We replaced the counter booths with a bar and cut the bar short and created a larger dining room area down at the end. A lot of the equipment is actually Merry Ann’s. We bought it from them. It was in storage, and we had to go get it and clean it, but it’s here.
One thing we wanted to keep from the diner was the right-in-front-of-you aspect. You’ll get to see people cooking right in front of you. There’s no secret. There’s no walls. There’s just us.
SP: So you you and Doug will be right there?
Nutting: Yeah, yeah. Prep will happen in the back, but all the real cooking will happen right in front of you.
SP: Tell me about the art.
Nutting: These pillars — all the graffiti —is done by a guy named Zoot. The Grateful Zoot, a freaking awesome guy. He’s friends with the guy who helped paint behind the neon lights, and he did a mock up on his phone, and we were like, “Dude, you got it. This is what we’re looking for.” He did this all in a day. It was really remarkable.
The lounge art is by Barry Callahan; he’s a local artist who does albums for punk bands. He is a friend and really cool guy. As soon as we got The Space, we knew we wanted him to do something, so he was pre-meditated. Zoot we just like happened upon, and we were like, “Yes, we need him.”
SP: I notice an outer space theme.
Nutting: Zoot sort of embraced the space theme. We had no intention of that. When we did The Kitchen at Collective Pour, we called it The Kitchen because we kept referring to it as a kitchen, so we named it the Weird Meat Boyz Kitchen. And then we’d talk about what we’d do when we got our own space. We’d say, “When we get the space, we’ll do this.” Then we got our own space, and we had to name it, so we were like, “Obviously, this is what it is: The Space.”
Doug was the artist for this mural of Skid, or A-Rock, the local bartender who passed away last year suddenly from a heart problem while doing yard work. He was a staple of the local music scene and super inspiring to be around. We have this quote from him: “I resent the term normalize. Don’t wait for permission from the man to let your freak flag fly, baby.” And that’s what he was all about, so we wanted this here to always remember that, like a touchstone. It’s going to be right there when bands play, and this is what you’re seeing. These are the values we have.
SP: What’s this one?
Nutting: So this one is by a different local artist named Hallee Heredia, roommate and best friend of Liv, our bar manager. We saw her work and fell in love. Her thing is that she does ghosts and cats, and I was like, “Can you make it a ghost pepper and come do a wall?” She said yes, and so it’s really awesome.
Bathroom alley was done by Zoot. The whole point of this was for him to just graffiti bomb this, and he was like, “Yes, I’d love to do that.” He said he’s never had to think about doing graffiti as the art itself. He’s done paintings like the pillars out there but not making graffiti the art before. He did a wonderful job of turning graffiti into art itself, and he did this in a couple days. He didn’t plan anything out, he just came in.
We asked if he could do a six pack and a hot dog, and he was like, “Yeah.” So he did it, free-hand on the spot.
This is not the Weird Meat Boyz. This is The Space. It’s a space that’s collaborative. Yes, we’ve used our history the last couple of years to create this thing, but we’re all about making something new and different and not about us. And we’re excited. We’re excited to do it with people like Liv, who just seem to get it, what we’re all about.
Orlandi: A lot of the other people coming on to work the front of the house are people I’ve known, and it’s cool to see how excited they are to be a part of something like this.
SP: Olivia, what’s it like working with the Boyz?
Orlandi: It’s super cool. I’m really excited about everything they’re doing. I’m very thankful for the freedom they’ve given me to do my own thing. It’s cool because they have ideas they bring to me, and we’re just running with it.
Nutting: We’re bringing on people to work with us, and if they have an idea for food, we want to hear the idea. One of the guys named Nathan that’s coming to cook with us has worked in awesome restaurants, and if he has a special idea, then we’ll just do it.
Hodge: Here we’re going to be open a lot more, so there’s a lot more flexibility. We were having fun at Collective Pour, and this is different.
SP: What are you doing now if not fun?
Hodge: We’re still going to have fun.
Nutting: We’re crying because of all the stress.
Hodge: Wondering why it takes six months to open a restaurant.
SP: Lastly, let’s talk a bit about the music aspect of The Space.
Hodge: We’re going to be selling food during shows, so if people want a burger, they can get a burger. I book all the bands, and I’m trying to book local bands but touring bands. I will always throw a local band with a touring band to give exposure. We’re not doing cover bands at all because I’m big into supporting music and people that write their own songs — nothing against cover bands, just not my thing.
I want to see local talent perform their own music. That’s fun. I’ve been booking shows since I was 16 years old, and I love doing this. I have some of my favorite bands coming to play here pretty soon; it’s going to be ridiculous.
Check out The Space restaurant’s menus here and information about shows here.
The Space Restaurant
1 E Main St
W 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Th-Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.