We’ve all been there. Whether it’s approaching 11 a.m. on Monday, or sometime shortly after clocking in on Friday, there’s one question so common yet so dreadful on everyone’s mind: What’s for lunch? Now all good employees bring their lunch and quietly eat while working, but this is for the rest of you.
One common problem for my group is analysis paralysis: too many choices. The goal I strive for is variety and no fast food. This time I’ll focus on downtown Urbana, and five decent spots to grab lunch without breaking the bank or the time clock. This is not meant to play favorites or be an exhaustive list, and don’t worry, we will get to Champaign and beyond in due time.
Everyone is familiar with Courier Café; it’s been around since 1980 and is only a short walk/drive from most points in Urbana. I’ll be honest — this is my go to place for its speed and simplicity. The menu contains enough variety to satisfy most tastes, they have rotating weekly specials (Taco Salad Tuesday is one of my favorites), and the staff is friendly. But it gets better: If you are looking for that speed lunch on a budget, the Courier salad bar is the place to be. It includes a variety of fresh vegetables (some from their very own garden), chunky protein choices (egg, turkey, and salami), various dressings, real bacon bits, and homemade croutons. The best part is that it’s $0.34 per ounce. That equates to a heaped plate of salad for around $7 with tax and tip. Other bonus features include onsite parking, or close access across Race Street in the city lot. All in all, you can be in and out in 20 to 30 minutes if you are in a rush, just be sure to get in before 11:45 a.m. There is a pretty good peak in traffic at noon, and with a non-existent waiting area you don’t want to be in line (outside) on bad weather days.
Courier Café is located at 111 North Race Street, Urbana; lunch service begins at 11 a.m. on weekdays.
If you are looking for that slightly more “gourmet” experience in a casual atmosphere, look no further than Crane Alley. This place has been around for quite some time and the menu has remained fairly constant. Prices here are slightly higher on average, but there are still good deals to be had. Their daily half and half special will run you $9. On my most recent trip I had intended on my favorite, the turkey pita ($12.50), but at the last minute went with the war pig burger. As the name suggests this is not your average burger. The ½ pound burger is accompanied by grilled ham and bacon, a chipotle aioli, and gorgonzola. The saltiness of the gorgonzola pairs well with the sweet and tangy sauce, as well as the smokiness in the bacon. It comes with a side of fries for $15. It’s a little more than I usually plan to spend on a lunch, but worth it if you are having meat withdrawals. Very centrally located, parking lot adjacent, forty minute total time for three people, and outdoor seating for those nice days, Crane Alley is a great option for weekday lunch. If you are lucky enough to be done working for the day at lunch time, they have an exceptional selection of draft and bottled beers from various micro-brews.
Crane Alley is located at 115 West Main Street, Urbana; lunch service begins at 11 a.m. daily.
Strawberry Fields Café
I’ll be honest, this place wasn’t on my radar. I was, however, excited for a new opportunity. Upon arrival, I was a little disoriented at first. There is a hot meal selection around the left end of the deli case that isn’t obvious upon entry. It had some rice, vegetables, and a turkey alfredo sauce, but I opted for a sandwich and side salad for this go-round. The menu offered six or so sandwiches to order, with choice of bread and vegetable options for $7. I went with chicken salad on wheat ($5) with a side salad ($2) consisting of carrots and quinoa in some sort of pickling juice. The salad was refreshing and crunchy. The sandwich was tasty on warm, fresh bread. All-in-all, no complaints; I will probably go back. My total was less than $8 and after consuming would be described as a calorie appropriate lunch, I succumbed to the beckoning of myriad sweets in the display case…ooey gooey butter cake for an additional $2, if you’re curious. It did not disappoint. The parking lot had plenty of spaces, and with virtually no wait, reasonably priced and quality ingredients make this a good choice for lunch in Urbana. The dessert case should have a warning for those without super-human will power.
Strawberry Fields Café is located at 306 West Springfield Ave, Urbana.
Who doesn’t love barbecue? Ok, this might not be the go-to spot for vegans and vegetarians, but for you meat lovers out there it hits the spot. Offering revolving daily specials that range from $8 to $11, you can’t go wrong. Unfortunately, my eyes always tend to over-order here. After opting for a two-meat combo and splitting an appetizer of cornbread, my lunch total approached $23. I don’t advise eating this large of a lunch if you want your afternoon to be productive. A variety of house-made sauces and quality cuts of meat keep this place in my list of top spots. Parking is sufficient — definitely walkable — but seating is limited. If you are in a hurry for lunch get there early or late to avoid waiting. Side note: your entire party must be present to be seated, so no luck saving spots (which is completely fair). They do have an excellent selection of beers and a seating area outside for the wait, if the weather and your schedule allow.
Black Dog is located at 201 North Broadway Avenue, Urbana; lunch service begins at 11 a.m. daily.
Bunny’s has been catering to downtown Urbana since 1936. Bunny’s menu is far more complex than you might expect from a pub. The menu boasts what you would typically expect from a pub: fried everything, burgers, and wings, but they also have a variety of salad, sandwiches and soup specials. The big surprise, however, is the revolving daily lunch special that is more on par with Sunday dinner at grandma’s. You won’t walk away hungry. On this trip I opted for the Texan: a burger with bacon, cheese, onion rings and barbeque sauce. How could you go wrong? Add a side of fries for $1.50, and you have a solid meal to help slow your afternoon down for a grand total of $13. Ample parking and as with everywhere else on this list, centrally located; Bunny’s is a great place to grab lunch without breaking the bank. It’s also a great place for a drink and snack after work, with a decent beer selection, large outdoor patio, and a grill open late.
Bunny’s is located at 119 West Water Street, Urbana; lunch service begins at 11 a.m. daily.
All photos by Rob Schaffer.