From the outside, it almost looks presidential.
Walk through the crisp white columns and front doors, however, and the vibe transforms to what the restaurant’s co-owner Dan Bush calls a “weird bizarro 1960s country club.”
Inside, there are long picnic-like community tables, an artificial grass wall covered with old-timey photos of prim and proper strangers, an array of vintage golf clubs and swanky bathrooms that could have appeared in “The Great Gatsby.”
There’s one fixture that steals the show: A 36-foot long bar — adorned with the same tropical print that lines the interior of the Beverly Hills Hotel — topped with 104 tap handles.
That’s right. At Armored Gardens, which opens Friday, there will be about 100 beers, from all over the world, on draft at all times.
Here’s how one Davenport resident, commenting on a photo of the tap system shared on the restaurant’s Facebook page, put it: “I’m drooling look at all those taps.”
Beyond the bar, a 5,000-square foot patio features outdoor seating, ping pong tables, a life-size chess set and a putting green. That sporty theme is seen throughout the 4,800-square foot interior as well.
“I feel like a lot of barbecue places look the same,” Bush said. “They all kind of look like dude ranches or are kind of industrial looking. I wanted to do something that I found to be the complete opposite of that.”
The beer and barbecue-heavy establishment marks the latest of Bush’s developments in downtown Davenport and second on this previously rundown corner of town at Pershing Avenue and 3rd Street. The 34-year-old Quad-City native also co-owns Analog Arcade Bar and the Triple Crown Whiskey Bar & Raccoon Motel, a bar and music venue right next door to Armored Gardens.
“It was the type of place I thought the area really needed,” Bush said. “I love barbecue and beer and I wanted to bring a place downtown that really highlighted both of those things.”
No one else was doing it. And it’s fast.
“I thought it was unrepresented in the area,” Bush said. “And I have often found it tough, especially at night, to just get a quick bite to eat downtown.”
To put the menu together, he enlisted Daniel Cuneo, a Connecticut-born chef who went to culinary school in New York City, as head chef. Cuneo, 35, moved to Davenport last year and previously worked at Black Dog Smoke & Ale House in Champaign and Rapid Creek Cidery in Iowa City.
“The advantage of being in the Midwest and the thing that makes this area great is you can pull from the best of everything,” Cuneo said. “We get asked from friends a lot, ‘Are you Texas or are you Carolina-style?’ We took what we like from all of it.”
The menu is anchored by proteins (pulled pork, beef brisket, pulled chicken and slab ribs) that you can order alone, on sandwiches or as a platter. There’s also offerings such as small-batch macaroni and cheese and twists on the typical barbecue sides such as Mexican cornbread and bleu cheese and bacon potato salad.
The meat is coming from Niman Ranch, a California-based network of family-owned farms that champion antibiotic-free and pasture-raised animals.
There’s another stand-out menu item: A vegetarian barbecue sandwich.
“You can get burgers and fries at 12 different places,” Cuneo, who also plans on adding gluten-free and vegan options to the menu, said. “I want this to be the place you can take the whole group and everyone can get something they want.”
For this chef who has been working in restaurants since he was 15, what sets Armored Gardens apart is this: “We’re hacking the equation of cheapest, fastest, best.”
“Because we’re barbecue, we put in a huge amount of time, but we do it before the customer ever gets here,” he said. “Some of these things take an entire day to slow cook.”
Because of that and Cuneo’s aim to have zero waste, he said customers should keep something in mind: “I am going to run out of food.”
“It’s just like the famous Texas barbecue places. What comes out of the smoker in the morning is it,” he said. “So if you want brisket, come get brisket. But if you walk in the door at 8:30 at night, I may not have any.”
“We make what we make and there are no shortcuts,” Bush added. “A lot of our processes take an entire day, so we can’t just whip up more.”
‘Please order by number’
To pair with a barbecue lunch or dinner, how about possibly any type of beer you fancy? Well, it’s close.
Powered by DigitalPour, an electric screen displays the 100 beers on tap, along with brew’s alcohol percentage, origin, coloring and how much is left in the keg.
Below that, in italics lettering, instructions read: “Please order by number.”
The options range from Budweiser and PBR to craft options from breweries such as Big Grove Brewery, of Solon, Iowa and Tallgrass Brewing Co., of Manhattan, Kansas, and Surly Brewing Co., of Minneapolis, and many, many more. Local breweries such as Green Tree Brewery, Front Street Brewery and Great River Brewery are also represented. One of the more obscure options is the Delirium Tremens, a golden ale from a brewery in Melle, Belgium.
“We wanted to offer as much variety as possible,” Bush said. “We have everything from domestics to local and Iowa beer to national craft beer.”
Via the DigitalPour app or at armoredgardens.com, patrons can check the beer menu in real-time on their smartphones. A wine list and cocktails will also be available.
“If you’re down the street at Analog and you see that we’re getting low on your favorite beer, you can come over and get it before it taps out,” Bush said. “That’s pretty convenient.”
‘Ugliest house in a great neighborhood’
As Cuneo said, Armored Gardens is about more than food and drinks.
“Beyond just having a restaurant, Dan’s idea was about putting something back into the community,” he said. “This is a spot that’s community-driven.”
Bush returned to Davenport 11 years ago after studying at DePaul University in Chicago. Back then, there wasn’t much to do in downtown.
“It’s completely night and day between where it was 11 years ago,” he said.
“Focusing on downtown has been a lot of fun because you can have different concepts in a close to each other. Being able to walk to three different places pretty quickly makes my job a lot easier.”
Bush, who previously operated a chain of five Quad-City area Jimmy John's restaurants with his family from 2008-16, opened Armored Gardens with the help of his father-in-law and business partner Rich Cooksey, who also did the build-outs for Analog, which opened in Oct. 2015 and the Raccoon Motel, which opened in March.
As Cooksey said, this is “definitely the biggest project.”
“Some of the other ones were more remodels,” he said. “This was a complete transformation, going from a transmission shop to a restaurant and bar. It presented a lot of challenges.”
But the 57-year-old retired UPS driver didn’t think twice when his son-in-law presented him the idea for Armored Gardens, what he calls “an urban garden in the middle of concrete.”
“We kind of bought the ugliest house in a great neighborhood,” he said. “I don’t know if we were visionaries or ignorant trying to make something out of it. We saw the potential.”
The neighborhood, which includes Hotel Blackhawk across the street, is getting busier. Ruby’s, the beer and brats business, opened a few blocks away on 3rd Street last month.
“We’re surrounded by plenty of other bars and establishments, too, so we’re giving people a place where they don’t have to drive 10 or 15 minutes to get to another venue,” Marc Kopcho, 30, an operating partner with Armored Gardens said. “It’s becoming a destination.”
And Bush and Cooksey have plans — about “8 or 10 more ideas” — for destination-style developments.
“From what we’ve done so far, the response has been great,”Bush said. “As long as the response is great, we’ll keep doing things. More than anything, I love what I do and I never want to stop.