In August 2008, while we were all busy watching the Olympics and could have really cared less, the Blockbuster Video at 1305 S. Neil St. closed its doors. For the next three years the building stood vacant, listed “for sale or for lease,” but without any takers. You may have driven past it, just north of Kirby, its blue-and-yellow marquee still intact, moldering in decay. It was starting to seem as if the building would just remain in that state, commerce free, until the prairies returned to swallow it up.
Fortunately, last fall, the building at 1305 S. Neil was spared that awful fate, when the Chicago-based hamburger chain Meatheads bought and remodeled the property, and turned a ramshackle business with old carpets, dirty windows, and a defining lack of character into a sleek and inviting new restaurant.
Now that Meatheads is open, some of you may be thinking: Why do we need another burger place in Champaign-Urbana? With Farren’s, the Esquire, Crane Alley, Black Dog, and several other local eateries serving up fine hamburgers, what’s the point? If you are thinking along those lines, a trip to Meatheads should change your mind.
On my recent visit to the Champaign location (the chain’s seventh, including two in Bloomington-Normal and four in the Chicago suburbs), I ordered a burger with roasted red peppers, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, pepper jack cheese, and bleu cheese sauce (these are only a small sampling of the available accoutrement), and it elevated my spirits (and blood sugar) into a state of mild euphoria. The combination of toppings complemented each other well and brought out subtle flavors in the meat, and I found that the just-about-perfect fries were paradoxically both ruined and improved by a deluge of malt vinegar. It was tremendous.
Pictured: not what Ryan ordered
In addition to burgers and fries, Meatheads also offers various styles of hot dogs and hand-dipped shakes (menu). The soda company of choice is Coca-Cola, which may prove disappointing for some folks. But few people will be disappointed by Meatheads’ snazzy soda fountain, which allows you to add flavor syrups with the push of a button. My choice, Cherry Sprite, functioned as a sort of madeleine, taking me back to the days when I was a little boy and Mom would use a glass of it (and Ritz crackers) as a cure-all for my upset stomach.
But I’m getting offtrack here. Meatheads. The quality of Meatheads’ food is only enhanced by the aesthetics of the restaurant. The building itself has a clean, modern design, with large windows allowing for a pleasant amount of natural light. The interior decor is hyper-local, not only featuring blown-up photographs of the Virginia Theatre marquee and other C-U treasures, but also dedicating one wall to the seasonal sports schedules of Champaign-Urbana high schools. And if that’s not enough to get you in the door, know that the booths in this place are gigantic, and could easily fit a Little League baseball team or a Catholic family circa 1954.
Featuring quality beef, crispy, hand-cut fries (with malt vinegar!), and a flavorful assortment of burger toppings, Meatheads is a welcome addition to the local restaurant landscape, and it is the best burger chain in Central Illinois. Some of you may find that statement to be a form of blasphemy, living as we do in the Land of the Takhomasak, but it’s true.
1305 S. Neil St.
(Northwest corner of Hessel Blvd. & Neil St.)
Sunday–Thursday, 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
Friday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
A meal at Meatheads, including a burger, fries, and a drink, costs around $8.00–9.00. The restaurant is semi-service.
All photos by Justine Bursoni