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My love for Esquire took about three years to develop, but it is a strong and enduring love.

Looking back, it seems incredible that I didn’t give Esquire a chance sooner. Centrally located in downtown Champaign, the recently expanded bar sits between some of my favorite places including Mike n’ Molly’s the Brass Rail. The Blind Pig is also just down the street.

But, we all have our prejudices. Mine include crowded pool tables, people in matching bar-crawl shirts, the same REM and Tom Petty songs on the jukebox, and peanut shells on the floors, tables, and as far as the eye can see. I also tend to not eat at bars serving primarily as drinking establishments, unless I have no other options.

Eventually I was talked into trying their drinks; that was what first got me. Their Bloody Mary is above average (under $4), and the Pineapple Margarita (I call it the “Pineapple Marg,” for $4.50) is a special treat if you like sweet/tart. While the aesthetic implications kind of get to me (stepping on peanut shells all night is none too glamorous) the peanuts are free all-you-can-eat fun, and if you smile at the right people they’ll send you off with a doggy bag to continue your evening adventure.

The food menu is also surprisingly good, in terms of variety. Esquire has a fine — if not long — list of well priced ($7.25) personal-size pizzas. They offer usual suspects, such as Hawaiian, Greek, and Garden pizzas, as well as more interesting options like the Pesto and White Garlic pizza. The Chicken BBQ with barbeque sauce, marinated chicken breast, red onion, pepperjack and mozzarella is popular, and for the truly adventurous there’s the Bleu Pear, equipped with pears, pine nuts, blue cheese, and mozzarella.

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The sandwich selection is also far above average. Bar hoppers can feast on a ribeye ($7) or a pork chop ($4.50); chicken salad, salami, or turkey pastrami; fried fish on Fridays ($5.25); or your plain old ground chuck: one-third pound with a choice of cheese is just $4.50. Add bacon for another buck. Vegetarians are not left behind: they can choose a grilled cheese on sourdough, a black bean burger on multi-grain or rye bread or a portabella mushroom on an onion roll with pesto. For something more far out, try the open-face salmon sandwich on multi-grain ($6), which comes with a tangy wasabi sauce, conveniently on the side.

The appetizers are also a big hit, perfect for a hangover belly craving grease or for making new friends when you take them to-go to the Blind Pig or Mike n’ Molly’s. The mozzarella sticks are greasy joy, as are the fried broccoli with ranch sauce and the (vegetarian) Asian dumplings, which come with a side of sweet sauce. Try one or more of these the next time you need some grease or want a sub for fries. At $4.50 for a basket, you won’t be disappointed.

With the sun coming out, Esquire is also an ideal place to people-watch day or night from the outdoor seating on both Walnut Street and University Avenue. Once the students leave in May, you might be able to find a table inside on a weekend evening and go to the bathroom without maneuvering around dozens of wasted pub-crawling Greeks.

Photos by Justine Bursoni