Walking in downtown Champaign, you might have noticed a small, unobtrusive sign, "Quality," sticking out of a wall. There have been people going into the "Lox, Stock and Bagel" place ― which has been defunct for quite some time now ― and as one of those inside, I've often seen quite a few people peer in the large windows on their way, curious at what is going on.
What's going on is that there's a new bar in town. I was clued in to this by the mention in the Best series. It was funny to me that it was in the Best: Food section, given that the new owners adamantly state that they do not want to carry anything perishable, but Best New Place to Booze is a very apt award for this place.
Neil and Aaron Van Natta (brothers from Watseka) have had the property for about two years now, but the long process of getting the place renovated and looking as they wanted it to look took some time. They liked the location, on the corner of Chester and Neil, and they liked the organization of space once a wall was put in between what is now Quality and the store next door, Circles Boutique. The inside took a long time to revamp though, with no electricity or running water, holes in the floor, and walls that did not look up to par. The pipes everywhere had to be removed, but if you look at the wall towards the beer garden, or in the middle of the room, you'll get an idea of what the place looked like, as some of them are the only things left intact.
The style of the bar is sparse in color to "make other colors pop," according to Aaron. With the paintings currently on the wall, that's definitely the case, though it's all still a work in progress, as they find more art to hang permanently on the walls. Neil knew the area from stopping by on his way to Carbondale from Watseka, visiting with friends, and with the location available, thought it would be a good opportunity for himself and his brother.
Much of the woodwork was put together by a talented contractor from Watseka, Andy LaBounty, who was able to make their ideas come to life, such as the huge bookcase and the bar wall. I was immediately drawn to the bookcase, particularly once I saw how many of the books were fantasy, sci-fi, and contemporary literature. There's plenty of Gaiman, Tolkien, King, even the new Mockingbird series in its entirety. You're welcome to sit and read awhile, and the setup is perfect to do so. Most of the reading collection is made up of books that the owners enjoy, either from Aaron's personal library (extras that he's already been through) or from garage sales and other places.
With long tables for big groups and small tables in the corner for individual reading and relaxing in the sun, the idea of the bar seems to be "something for everybody." There's a dartboard in one corner of a room, a chalkboard to doodle on in another corner of another room, the bookcase to grab books from and stay awhile, random art, and a sit-down Ms.Pacman machine filled with other arcade games as well.
The hours are standard: 3:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. all week. There will be ads soon, to get the word out about this place, though word of mouth has worked pretty well so far. The beer selection is pretty good, with a well-thought-out printed beer menu, as well as an ever-changing chalkboard on the wall listing the current draft selection.
The draft beers are American craft beers, and there are no plans on changing that. They have lots of foreign bottles, but with so many American craft beers, there's a continually changing list of beers for them to choose from to fill their 16 drafts. As they spoke, Aaron and Neil mentioned that they're open to ideas, and they might be willing to have imports on draft for a special week, but otherwise, the plan seems to be to stick with American craft beers overall.
Beer is the main beverage they concentrate on, though they have a decent liquor selection for the rest of their drinks. They also have a straightforward wine selection, so don't expect too much variety as far as wines go. Personally, though I love beer, I've taken to skipping the places in town that focus on it, because they are inevitably awful at mixed drinks, and someone in my party always wants one. This place trumps those though, in that they actually have incredibly friendly bartenders who know how to mix drinks. I know, I was surprised too! Having been to the beer places in town, I thought it was required that the bartenders glare at you, make you wait in line for thirty minutes, and make shitty mixed drinks to punish you for not being cool enough to drink their beer, but it turns out that they're trying something different at this place, namely, good, friendly service and providing you with the drinks that you order at a decent price.
Quality will eventually have daily specials, but Neil and Aaron are interested in reading the crowd and seeing what's enjoyed before they begin to put some of their ideas into practice. They're making a Facebook page, starting a Twitter feed (which will list the daily specials when they start), and if you're interested in getting a job there, they have a listing on a website (which they'll be updating over time).
They're not planning on ever serving food, but they have menus behind the counter and encourage people to order in as they feel like. Any restaurants in town willing to deliver should make sure that they have menus at the bar.
With free WiFi, a small but nice beer garden, lots of spacious — as well as intimate — seating inside, a friendly staff, and good beer, this is definitely a place to try. It hasn't gotten too popular yet, as it's mainly still word of mouth, so now is definitely the time to check it out. And ask the bartenders questions if you feel like it. Every time I've asked Terry anything (he's my favorite bartender, or at least, the only one I ever have in the place, and he's great), he's always been there to provide me with information on the beer or the bar. With friendly service in a relaxed environment, Quality is definitely a great bar to check out this summer.
All photos by Scott Weber.