If you aren’t here for college, then there are few reasons to roam among the suburban youth who tan, binge drink and mate along East Green Street for eight months each year. There are a few hidden treasures, however: some seriously decent eateries catering to academics searching for digestible food. One even offers full wait service (gasp!) and a full bar (no!). Soon to be swept into downtown Champaign’s old train station, Café Luna offers delicious lunches, dinners and Sunday brunches. Make the trip if you are feeling adventurous or are otherwise campus-bound. Certainly after their move next month there will be no reason not to try it out.
Foolishly trying to attract students with a variety of burgers, the lunch hour at Luna (11 a.m.–3 p.m.) is typically packed during the workweek with academic professionals. Best known among the burgers is the Eclipse, topped with caramelized onions, blue cheese and sautéed mushrooms. Now, even with a great variety of burgers, this is fine dining, with table clothes, steady wait service and the works. If you want your belly filled on the cheap, Murphy’s and Legends are a block down. But if you can’t decide, or you’re sick of the usual choices, go on a Tuesday, when $10 will buy any burger and any beer from their ample menu.
Appealing to those with disposable income, Luna is better known for its dinner, which consists primarily of high-priced, but well prepared, quality tapas (that’s small plates of food), with a handful of thoughtfully presented mains. Most tapas go for $5–$10, and if you are hungry you’ll need a few plates per person. Start with the fried artichoke and beet salad or the goat cheese balls. If you like sushi, be sure to try the sesame-coated fresh tuna cubes. As with lunch, you get what you pay for, which is seriously well-made food, so go on a payday, get a cheap bottle of red (under $20) and order deliberately and gradually from the lengthy menu. Leave room for dessert The flourless chocolate cake is the one and only dessert this diner will regularly order (and share with her friends) on an already full belly.
Can’t stomach the bill? Go on Monday for half-priced tapas, Wednesday for half-priced wine or starve yourself all day Tuesday through Saturday for all-you-can-bear chef’s choice tapas at $30 per person (they’ll try to work with you while also getting rid of their freshest ingredients).
Luna’s only real competition for thoughtfully prepared and presented meals (that is, high priced, non-steak house fare) are Radio Maria and Escobar, both located in downtown Champaign. It appears that Radio Maria may have been, uh, “influenced” by Luna in developing its own tapas, which truly pales in comparison in terms of portions, variety, taste and pricing. Like Radio Maria and Escobar, Luna now offers Sunday brunch, featuring homemade donuts with mascarpone and jellies ($5), various forms of eggs Benedict ($7–$10), omelets with potatoes and fruit salad ($8–$12), strip steak and eggs ($14) and the Bloody Marys and mimosas ($6) your liver craves on Sundays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Compared with Luna’s other courses and the Sunday brunches at Radio Maria and Carmon’s, I wasn’t overly impressed with my grapefruit and berry mimosas or my omelet with arugula, mushrooms, gruyere and truffle oil. They were tasty, and the service and atmosphere were practically perfect, but the choices just weren’t as creative or well-conceived as I expected. Next month, however, when Luna moves to its new building on Chestnut Street at University Avenue (they are currently remodeling Tracks), I know I’ll try again before waiting in line at prime-time for Radio’s brunch. Indeed, if they provide more choices to go with the larger space and maintain the Brazilian music, and pleasant table service, I may rethink my review over several more Izze grapefruit mimosas this spring.
Photos by Justine Bursoni