When our party of 12 arrived at Neil St. Blues they had our reservation on the books and led us right through to the back room. When we walked through the first bar area I wasn't sure if I was in the right location; the interior still looked a lot like what used to be Dublin O’Neil’s. When we entered the back room, it was a different story. There was a modern bar lit up in the corner as we walked in, and the walls were painted black with red trim. The space was adorned with tall textured mosaic tile artwork that popped against the inky black walls. The chairs were brushed chrome metal and luckily we were seated right by the windows, which was also near the DJ booth. While we waited for our other friends to arrive I had a look at the menu, which was a mixture of soul, southern, and Creole cuisine. I enjoyed that the menu wasn’t too long and had just enough to choose from.

After everyone arrived we chatted companionably about our days, then started to order appetizers and drinks. We ordered Moscow mules, tequila sunrises, and a Corona beer ($4.50) for me. The appetizers arrived quickly and we dug into the mass of fried delights. The fried okra ($4) was battered, hot, and fried to perfection. The Philly egg rolls ($8) were filled with four gooey cheeses, fire roasted peppers, sliced steak and served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. The fried cheese curds ($8) were also battered and fried, while not being too greasy.

My favorite appetizer by far were the fried green tomatoes ($7). The crunchy cornmeal crust was seasoned with herbs, and the tomato was tangy and juicy. I did wish that they would’ve served them with a sauce, but the juiciness of the tomatoes made up for it. The last two appetizers of the evening were the fried kool-aid pickles ($7) and the house made chips and artichoke dip. The breading of the pickles fell off a bit because of the way that the pickles were sliced lengthwise. If they had been cut into rounds it may have stayed on better. Nonetheless, the red-tinted pickles had a sweet and sour taste and the cornmeal crust was crispy and not greasy at all. The spinach and artichoke dip ($8) was apparently so tasty that it was gone before I had a chance to try it. I did, however, get a chance to try the crispy housemade chips that were crunchy and salted just right.

Next we selected our entrees from their very reasonably priced menu. The size of our group was so large that we all got to taste pretty much everything. The special of the night was Fried Catfish with a side of spaghetti for $12, which was one of the first entrees chosen. The nicely cooked catfish was glistening inside of the crispy cornmeal crust and the spaghetti and sauce were cooked and seasoned well. The other pasta dish was a Cajun chicken Alfredo ($16) made with al dente cooked fettuccine, grilled chicken, big slices of smoked sausage, tender sautéed shrimp,and  served with a mix of bell peppers and onions, then topped with a creamy Cajun Alfredo sauce. Another favorite of the night was the jambalaya (cup $4; bowl $8) which had tender Cajun rice, chicken, fresh shrimp, and spicy andouille sausage tossed with roasted bell peppers, and fragrant fresh garlic.

I enjoyed the huge fried chicken wing dinner ($14); for my two sides I chose baked mac and cheese, and french fries. The chicken was tender and the skin was crispy and delicious. The baked mac and cheese could have been more cheesy, but it was certainly buttery and decadent. The fries were hot, salted just right and perfectly crispy. They also offer a vegetarian black bean burger — I didn't try it but I appreciated that they offer a veggie option. The portion sizes of the meals were generous and very well priced for Downtown Champaign. Neil St. Blues also offers a late night menu that boasts crispy chicken wings basket, catfish nugget basket, or a popcorn shrimp basket — perfect late night food after a night of drinking and dancing! They also have live music, but on this night there was a DJ playing a good mix of new and old blues and R&B.

The atmosphere of the restaurant was upbeat, friendly, and fun, especially after the DJ
started the music and colorful lights. The food was flavorful, the portions were generous, and a night out at this spot won’t break the bank. I had a wonderful time at Neil St. Blues and I
even got to meet head chef and C-U local Christina Glass. She informed me that they
are about 87% percent done with the interior. They’re planning on offering a banquet
space along with other exciting changes to come. She also shared with me her favorite
item on the menu, the shrimp and grits. So make sure to try it and let her know what you
think. I look forward to going back for another night on the town with friends.

Neil St. Blues
301 N Neil St, Suite 106
Champaign
M-Th 5 p.m. to midnight
F + Sa noon to 2 a.m.
Su noon to midnight

Photos by Rebecca Wells