Champaign-Urbana has a fairly robust breakfast scene. There are a good number of places to enjoy the first meal of the day, though most of them require you sit down in a restaurant. While I like to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in a restaurant, that doesn’t always jive with my schedule during the workweek. I often need and want some breakfast sandwich to go, that I can either eat while driving to my destination, or eat quickly before I need to get to my destination. This is especially true of mornings wherein I am travelling and am too rushed and lazy to eat before I leave the house.
Say what you will about McDonald’s, but the Egg McMuffin™ is kind of the perfect breakfast sandwich. Is there a better combination than Canadian bacon, egg, and cheese on an English muffin? I think not. And, for $4 or so, you can have your breakfast in your hands in a few minutes, without leaving your motor vehicle. In part this quest was to find a “better” version of this breakfast option — better in the sense of quality of ingredients and morality/social acceptance.
I wanted to find some places I could pop into with relative ease — this made locations on the U of I campus off limits. (Though Cracked arguably reigns supreme in the C-U breakfast sandwich scene.) Instead, I focused my looking on places off campus and around C-U with parking.
I’ve identified a few places that offer breakfast sandwiches or a sandwich equivalent (some of them all day!), but this is neither a complete nor exhaustive list of all places in C-U and all potential options. For most of these sandwiches, you’ll need $10 and at least 10 minutes — this is not a drive-thru situation. At each location, I ordered bacon, egg, and cheese (BEC) and/or ham, egg, and cheese (HEC), with cheddar as my cheese choice if given the option. I do lament that we do not have a deli that opens at 6 a.m. and serves up $5 BEC sandwiches in 3 minutes. And while I am not personally a regularly early riser, it is worth nothing that most of these places don’t open until 8 a.m.
This Downtown Champaign café has a fairly robust sandwich and wrap menu. Breakfast sandwiches ($6) are served on ciabatta rolls and come with a side of potatoes or fruit (or salad, I think). You can also opt for your sandwich on a bagel (+$1). I ordered BEC on ciabatta and HEC on an everything bagel.
The BEC was the superior sandwich. The bacon was crispy, the ingredients were well contained in within the slices of bread, creating an optimal bite ratio, and everything tasted great together. The HEC was not as good as the BEC; the bagel wasn't great. (The employee couldn’t recall where the bagels were from.) The egg and cheese were good, but the ham was too thick for my liking, and not caramelized enough for my taste.
The best choice at Aroma is the classic BEC on ciabatta — the textures and bite ratio were great.
118 N Neil St
M-F 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sa + Su 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Art Mart does not serve a breakfast sandwich, per se. I am not here to litigate the definition of sandwich; but I would be remiss if I did not include Art Mart’s breakfast croissants on this list.
You can grab a filled croissant (egg and sausage in my case) for only $3, and they are hot and ready. I really, really like these croissants. They are buttery. They are filling. Each croissant is a little indulgence that doesn’t feel like the worst thing ever, because it isn’t the size of a toddler’s face. You’ll be satisfied, but not weighed down. Plus, since they’re only $3, you have plenty left over from your $10 to get something else, like a fancy coffee or another croissant.
1705 S Prospect
7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily
At first thought, Bread Company might seem like an inaccessible, or at least inconvenient place to get a hot breakfast during the week, but let me assure you that there are very few students out and about before 9 a.m. I had no problem finding parking in the metered spots directly in front of the restaurant.
There are two options for breakfast sandwiches: the grab and go ($3.50), and the full size ($7). The grab and go is made to order, so you’re not exactly grabbing and going anywhere immediately. Those sandwiches are served on baguette. Full size sandwiches are served with potatoes and on sliced bread, so they are quite a bit larger.
I ordered BEC in the full size and HEC on the grab and go; it took about 10 minutes or so for my order to be ready. Both were still hot by the time I got home to Champaign.
There was some sort of mayo sauce on both sandwiches; this was not indicated on the menu. My husband and I maintain mayo-free diets; let’s just say that neither of us appreciated the surprise tart goo on our eggs. Look, eat what you what when you want how you want. But please, for the love of all things sacred, please indicate whether or not there is a condiment on the hot egg sandwich.
Outside of the mayo debacle, the sandwiches were good. The bread was, of course, delicious. The grab and go option was my favorite; the ham was perfectly caramelized. For $4 ($5 with coffee), it's a fantastic deal. Knowing what I know now, I would certainly go back and order my sammies sans mayo.
706 S Goodwin Ave
Breakfast: M-Sa 8 a.m.
Common Ground Food Co-op
Don’t sleep on the eggy breakfast bagel ($7.25) at Common Ground. Served on a Central Illinois Bakehouse bagel with egg, Ropp cheddar and meat, it’s a satisfying breakfast. I ordered HEC on an everything bagel, and it was great. The bite ratio was on point, with the ingredients just peeking out around the edges of the bagel. The ham was thinly sliced, and the Ropp cheddar actually offers flavor and texture, unlike most other cheddar cheeses.
These sandwiches are only available as long as there are bagels, though I suppose you could order them on toast, instead. Don’t do that. Treat yourself to the bagel — it’s the best experience.
Lincoln Square Mall
300 S Broadway Ave
Deli counter opens at 8 a.m. daily
Pekara is often a go-to for breakfast sandwiches (served all day), and for good reason. Seeking the convenience and cost (free) of parking, I went to the Springfield and Prospect location. It should be noted: Since late September the hours for that location changed; it’s now open at 7 a.m., with the kitchen opening at 8 a.m. There are some cold breakfast sandwiches ($5) in the cooler case, but it's a sad day when you eat a cold BEC sandwich, or worse, a microwaved one. If you need breakfast before then, your best bet is the Downtown location.
Pekara’s breakfast sandwich standard is egg on bagel or toast for $4. You can upgrade to a croissant for $2, and add toppings for $0.50 each. I do not know anyone who would simply order egg on toast, lest they were recovering from some gastrointestinal episode. A basic sandwich, with at least cheese will cost you at least $4.50.
I ordered BEC on a croissant ($7) and HEC on multigrain toast ($5). Pekara’s breakfast sandwiches are (famously?) served with orange slices, and I was relieved to receive a bag of sandwiches with the oranges wrapped separately. (Otherwise the bread gets soggy and everything tastes like oranges.) The HEC on multigrain was a good sandwich, though there was too much bread for the sandwich filling.
The real star of the show was the BEC on the croissant, perhaps for obvious reasons. Pekara’s/Central Illinois Bakehouse’s croissants are buttery and flaky, but sturdy enough to hold up to a hefty sandwich. The richness of the croissant lends that extra oomph to the sandwich; multigrain toast can never offer that.
If you’re getting your BEC or HEC from Pekara, do it right by getting it on a bagel (like at Common Ground), or on a croissant. Save the multigrain toast for your turkey and avocado sandwich.
811 W Springfield Ave
Kitchen opens at 8 a.m. daily
Photos by Jessica Hammie