Drink is dead. Long live Wellman's? The new pub hopes downtown bargoers think so.
Whatever you do, don't call Wellman's Pub a party bar. The people in charge here hate that.
I had it pegged for one after learning that the new bar -- located in the old downtown Drink -- isn't changing owners. So what gives? Has Drink grown up?
That's what Wellman's brass will tell you (over and over again). I spent some time there on opening night last Friday and -- guess what? -- they might be right.
They've remodeled the place as a sports bar (because, you know, we need more of those). The dance floor is gone. In its place are rows of tufted-leather booths, perfect for viewing the 27 flat-screen TVs outlining the room. There's a 20-foot-long digital sports ticker above the bar to keep ESPN junkies up to date.
The Wellman's concept comes from Iowa, where Drink's co-owner operates two other locations. This one is being managed by Robert Hollingshead, who didn't mince words when stating his goal for wiping the slate clean.
"Drink had ... a reputation," he said. "It was a party bar. It's going to be a hard stigma to crack."
Facelifts for everyone
The guys behind Wellman's are Mike Whitelaw and Tom Baldwin. This is Whitelaw's third remodel in six months. After his Uptown Drink filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October, he renamed it the Uptown Tavern & Rooftop (it remains open). Fusion, on the same block, is now Social House. And then there's Wellman's.
Baldwin, a longtime business partner of Whitelaw's, is a nightlife magnate who owns two Wellman's locations in the Des Moines area, plus an Irish pub and a party bar called Uncle Buck's (he used to own a Drink down there, too). The duo had planned to transform the downtown Drink into an Uncle Buck's but eventually chose a concept less dependent on Jag-bombs and Affliction T-shirts. They closed the bar on New Year's Eve, making it the last Drink to fly off to bro-bar heaven.
"Drink is now extinct," another Wellman's manager told me (as if I had not already gotten the point).
Food, food, food
Hollingshead told me he wants people to come for "the food and stay for the party." Unlike Drink, Wellman's is open every day, including lunch. (As the old party bar neared its decade-long run, it was only open three days a week and only at night.)
So what of this food? Here are my first impressions of the menu, which basically consists of burgers, sandwiches, wraps and pizzas (mostly in the $9-$12 range). The nachos were as good as advertised -- generous amounts of melted Mexican cheeses topped with jalapeños and mojo sauce. The spicy smoked wings were tongue-searingly hot (a good thing).
The dozen or so burgers have been localized, named after city streets. Not sure why a semi-spicy burger (topped with pepperoni, banana peppers and chipotle mayo) is named after the least spicy street (Grand Avenue) but it was juicy and good. Not so good: Wellman's version of a juicy lucy. No finesse. Just two chunky patties slapped together with cheese in the middle. I washed it down with a Bell's Two Hearted -- a good sign that craft beer is trickling into this bar (Fulton is on tap, too).
If this food thing doesn't work out, they can always clear out the tables and bring in a DJ. Actually, Baldwin told me there will indeed be a late-night party. They've discussed clearing a dance area on weekend nights and bringing in a VJ. I also heard something about using the draft 1919 root beer for some special booze-infused bomb shots.
"People will feel the need to get out of their seats," Baldwin said of his late-night plan.
Maybe fist-pumping isn't dead after all.