When influential graphic designer Art Chantry was in town, a group of fans volunteered to take him around town to see the sights and to make sure he was well fed. Anni Poppen, a graphic designer at Krannert Center, picked him up at the airport and took him to dinner at Radio Maria. Lisa Costello, Parkland’s Art Gallery director, took Art to lunch at Esquire Lounge the next day. After a long day of talks and presentations, Geoff Merritt, the owner of That’s Rentertainment and Parasol Records, hosted a party for Art at his record store in Urbana, complete with live music and pizza from Antonio’s. Just before his presentation for a group of professionals, I took Art to lunch at Thara Thai. By this time, we had gotten to know him a little better and understood his tastes. So when it came time to choose a place for his farewell dinner, we went to Sam’s Cafe.

If you know Art Chantry’s work, then you know that he is the opposite of glossy slickness. When he was in town, his two favorite places were Jane Addams Book Store and Furniture Lounge. Art’s tastes definitely veered towards hidden dives and authentic gems, so Applebee’s was definitely out. This was Friday night, so we were lucky that Sam’s was serving their Lebanese Menu. When we walked in, Art was immediately impressed by the unassuming atmosphere and a ceiling full of ads promoting local businesses. As the evening went on, a broad range of customers came in and soon the entire diner was full. We saw older couples, families, professionals, international students — a great cross section of the people living in Champaign-Urbana — all enjoying authentic home-made Lebanese food.

 

When we sat down, Toty, the owner, greeted us personally and offered us Arabic coffee, so we couldn’t refuse. This is the dark muddy stuff with grounds that settle at the bottom. Add a couple spoonfuls of sugar to tone down the bitter flavors and you’ll never go to Starbucks again. The menu was small enough so that our party of six could taste just about everything on it, which we did. Toty explained that the food she serves is exactly what she would make at home for her family. We agreed, because not only did every dish have that “home made” flavor, it also tasted like she really put her heart into her cooking. The falafel was extra sweet, just like the ones I used to get off street carts in New York City. The hummus had an extra zing of garlic, just the way I would make it at home. The stuffed grape leaves were soft and tender. The shish was a flavorful grilled chicken dish with a wonderful garlic sauce served on the side. But we were most impressed by the the tabbouleh, a simple parsley salad that was raised to new heights with just the right balance of lemon juice and mint.

 

I’ve never had kibbe before so this was my special treat. This torpedo shaped meatball tastes like a non-vegetarian falafel. Deep fried to a crispy brown on the outside, the inside is soft like a meat loaf. But everyone’s favorite was the special of the evening: kafta. A cross between a hamburger and meatloaf, this spiced up beef dish with secret ingredients is served with a healthy dose of grilled onions on the side. Familiar and exotic at the same time, every bite was savored and we were left with a feeling of satisfaction that only a home-made meal can offer. Even so, we had to try the two kinds of Lebanese cookies, called mamoul, on the menu. At first we were disappointed that the cookies came in packages, but the disappointment faded when we bit into them and discovered pistachio and date fillings that sent us to heaven.

 

We love the other Sam’s, the authentic breakfast greasy spoon run by Toty’s husband for over 20 years. But this new dimension is strictly Toty’s gig. So what was the inspiration for opening up on Thursday and Friday nights? Toty explained that she noticed how our town was changing and how many different ethnic restaurants are opening all around her. So two years ago, she decided to see how receptive our town was to a Lebanese restaurant. Her intuition and timing was right as now she cooks for an appreciative audience of regulars who have discovered just how delicious Lebanese food can be.

Sam’s Cafe
115 N Walnut St, Champaign
(217) 352-7102
Lebanese menu served Thursday and Friday nights from 4:30 to 10:30pm
No credit cards