Last week, news broke that after two-and-a-half year search, FitzGerald’s, the 40-year-old music venue in suburban Berwyn, had been sold. New owner Will Duncan, a Chicago restaurant industry veteran, soaked up his first few days on the job during concerts Wednesday and Thursday. He saw loyal fans saying goodbye to the FitzGerald family as the previous owners celebrated their long-awaited retirements.
“It’s been a pretty incredible thing to witness,” Duncan said. “I can only dream that one day, when I retire, that as many people care as they do about the FitzGerald family moving on.”
The suburban nightclub is a classic that has won over the most surly city dwellers. The transition from the FitzGeralds to Duncan has so far been seamless. Duncan raced to Berwyn city hall on Wednesday to secure an updated liquor license so the venue could operate without needing to close for a day. Duncan is the former beverage director at 16” On Center, the company that owns Chicago bars and restaurants like Revival Food Hall, Dusek’s, MONEYGUN, and Empty Bottle.
Bill FitzGerald founded the family-run venue in 1980 in Berwyn, and the family has searched for a buyer since 2017. They wanted someone who could retain FitzGerald’s character, a new owner who would continue to book the type of bands that have built up the venue’s loyal fanbase. Duncan is keeping his words and has retained 25 staff members, including head of music Donnie Biggins.
Given Duncan’s background with drinks, he’s going to be slowly rolling out changes to the beverage list. No, FitzGerald’s won’t become a tiki bar. Drastic changes aren’t part of the plan. Music fans don’t want to wait for a bartender to make their drinks while their favorite band takes the stage.
“One of the things I’ve learned in a venue context is the you have to be familiar and fast,” Duncan said.
The main bar already as 16 draft lines. Duncan will populate those with local beers, even nearby breweries like Kinslagher in Oak Park or Noon Whistle in Lombard. New batched cocktails will make it easier for bartenders who can pour cocktails like margaritas straight from the tap. Hot summer days will call for spiked frozen drinks. Duncan will bring in slushy machines. FitzGerald’s also hosts the American Music Festival on the venue’s grounds. Frozen drinks will make their ways to the annual event held outdoors.
The new ingredients should be welcomed at Sidebar, FitzGerald’s second bar. Bartender Isaac Lyons has already kept up to date on drinking trends. Duncan intends to enable Lyons to continue his path, equipping him with better cocktail ice and other resources. FitzGerald’s is also a popular wedding venue. Duncan doesn’t anticipate major changes with food vendors. Nearby Capri Ristorante will continue to be used as a caterer.
While at 16” On Center, Duncan oversaw the bar programs at Thalia Hall, the Pilsen music venue. The building also houses Dusek's, a lauded New American restaurant, plus two bars: Punch House and Tack Room. From his experience there, Duncan feels that music fans in Berwyn will enjoy fresh juices for their cocktails and a wider selection of liquor. Duncan also sees room to grow FitzGerald’s wine selection. More wine will also come in handy for concerts with premium table seating options.
Still, Duncan knows which side of his toast his buttered. These changes are meant to make current FitzGerald’s happier and to give them a taste of something new. It’s not about reinventing the space or making it trendy. In fact, he wants to lean more into family-friendly programming. Duncan talked about an event on Father’s Day that featured a Tom Petty cover band. The kids can go crazy in front while parents hang back with a quality cocktail. That’s the type of programming to expect under new ownership.
For Duncan, owning a music venue is a “dream come true.” He hopes that with a few tweaks that he can turn FitzGerald’s into a “world-class drinking destination.”