I was waiting my turn in the crowded bathroom at Fat Tony’s Sports Tap, and had just assured Brandi Martin, 22, that she didn’t need the eyeliner she was digging for in her purse.
“Will you take a picture with us?” she asked.
“Sure, of course!” I reached for her phone as she and her pals huddled for the photo.
“No,” said 21-year-old Tierra Weber, reaching out a hand to me. “We mean, will you be in our picture with us?”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The vibe at the neighborhood watering hole — just down the street from the restaurant/bar Mullets on Des Moines’ south side — had been upbeat all night.
My husband and I had arrived around 9, driving across the Southwest Third Street bridge near Principal Park and taking Jackson Avenue over to the neighborhood known best for Tumea and Sons restaurant and Graziano Brothers Italian Grocery and its popular sausage.
A neon sign and large patio strung with white lights made Fat Tony’s easy to spot. We parked next to the unassuming brick building and headed inside, where house band Fahrenheit was warming up. A few seats down, two girls and a guy, 20-somethings, chatted about work.
I had been curious to see how the experience would compare to our previous visit, a Friday, when we’d enjoyed cold Newcastles at the clean establishment, but found it hard to talk over the blaring jukebox’s rock and hip-hop classics. Other patrons in the smallish space — decorated with sports-themed posters and signage — hadn’t been unfriendly, but the place was not particularly full and the visit didn’t leave a strong impression.
By 9:30, I realized that Thursdays were altogether different. Groups arrived in twos, threes, fours, most in their 20s and 30s. Dressed in T-shirts and jeans, reaching out for handshakes and hugs, they were there to relax, not impress.
“Hey, how ya doin’?”
“My mom’s here tonight.”
“Your mom like Patron?”
Friends of ours showed up and we moved to a table — one of three that had been pushed together to make room for the band. “You guys saving these?” two young women asked. They sat down as the band launched into Kool & The Gang’s “Ladies Night.” The band’s volume was just right. By the time they got to “Walking in Memphis,” my friends and I were singing along.
“It’s always like this on Thursday nights,” bartender Emily Erickson told me. Christopher Wilder, 38, of Windsor Heights, agreed. “You never know who you’re going to meet. I’ve talked with city council members and state senators here. ”
Owners John and Matt Mauro grew up on nearby Granger Avenue. Real estate agents, they bought the property — formerly Richard’s Extra Innings Lounge — two years ago with an eye on the city’s newest 10-year Urban Revitalization Plan.
The bar has eight flat- screen TVs, devoting Saturdays to Iowa games (a jersey on the wall belonged to their cousin Jimmy, who played for Hayden Fry in the ’80s). And while they offer a grill for anyone who wants to toss on burgers, most fans opt for the free food the Mauros and their neighbors cook up on Saturdays: authentic Italian and Mexican dishes, barbecue, a brunch with breakfast burritos and sausage.
Other times to go: ’80s and ’90s DJ on Tuesdays, rock star karaoke on Wednesdays, the band Fahrenheit on Thursdays, live music on Saturdays.
Martin and Weber passed our table on their way to the patio, stopping for hugs as we gathered our stuff to head home.
“If you want to have a loud, fun night and forget about work, forget about school,” Weber said, “you go downtown. If you want to hang out with friends, you come to Fat Tony’s or Mullets.”
Fat Tony's Sports Tap
Find it: 1500 S.E. First St.
Hours: 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday. Open at 10 a.m. on Hawkeye game days.