While it isn’t difficult to find a bar in downtown Champaign that suits your mood or credit card balance available (or a club, if that’s your bag), finding a decent place to eat can be tricky. If you don’t feel like stepping on peanut shells or shouting over played-out pop rock, then be prepared to spend 30 to 50 bones for a traditional fine dining experience. Indeed, it would seem that neither downtown nor Campustown has a single spot that is casual, but not tacky; civilized, but not pretentious; that can accommodate the burger fiends as well as the more high-maintenance diners among us.
If you go east down Springfield Avenue, however, you can find a place that is, for both the seasoned foodie and the seasoned townie somewhere in between middle-of-the-road and just right. The place to go, which also serves the more sophisticated of dedicated drinkers with a recently expanded martini menu, is Urbana’s Crane Alley.
Smack-dab in the middle of downtown Urbana, Crane Alley offers a more than tolerable alternative to Champaign choices for a first date (do people still do that?), a meal with your parents, or an evening drink (or ten) with friends. The pub-style restaurant offers cozy booths or balcony tables, pool near the bar, and tables for people-watching on Main Street. In the summer, the alley outside is another pleasant option. Rest assured you won’t see playing cards tacked to the walls, empty booze bottles or anything else “delightfully tacky” used as décor – although you won’t find hand lotion or air freshener in the bathroom, either (really, you’ll be lucky if there’s toilet paper).
Even without the hand lotion, Crane Alley can still nearly pull off “understated,” because of the food. If you manage to get your hands on a menu (seat yourself, and pray that your server notices you), you’ll find a terrific menu in terms of quality, variety, and pricing. Appetizers, sides, mains, and pub fare are equally available to vegetarians, carnivores, and seafood lovers. With the range of choices, you won’t feel guilty snacking on the veggie kebab appetizer ($7) or beet chips with goat cheese dip. Others can get more serious with the mahi mahi ($20) or the lasagna with crab, corn, spinach, and goat cheese ($13, although not quite as incredible as it might sound). Their relatively sane salads ($4-10) beat the monstrosities at Za’s and Seven Saints hands down (unless you wanted a cup of syrup and a pound of feta in your belly). There are also plenty of burgers and sandwiches ($6-9), with and without meat and other toppings.
Or, you could just drink.
The full bar features enough beer choices for the microbrew set as well as a decent variety of wines and liquors. Prefer drinking on the cheap? A PBR will set you back two dollars, as will a Guinness on Mondays and any well drink – that’s with the cheap liquor – on Wednesdays.
With its recently expanded martini menu, Crane Alley is also a more-than-welcome alternative to the overbearing Boltini and other places for ladies to get their drink on with style (men are also welcome, of course). This weekend some friends and I sampled extensively from the list, and while I dare not recommend one in particular (I like the ones with names like “Almond Joy”), I can say assuredly that if you have the time and disposable income (they don’t make ‘em too cheap; a dirty martini is $5.50), you will enjoy debating with your friends the “Grass Skirt” versus the “Hot and Dirty” versus the “Banana Bread.” Bring ten bucks and ten friends, and don’t be afraid to ask your server before getting anything with a Pop Rocks candy rim.
Photos by Justine Bursoni