The Brass Rail is a quirky little dive bar located in Downtown Champaign. I’ve seen everything from bridal parties popping in for shots of Fireball, college students out for a bar crawl, thirty-somethings playing pinball and downing Squints, and the quiet regular who always has the same seat at the bar and a Hamm’s in hand. Love it or hate it, The Brass Rail has kept it’s place in the hearts of many since 1933.
Like most dive bars, this place can be hit or miss with most people — it all depends on your expectations. This bar has had a no frills, simplistic approach to serving the people for a number of years. For me, it all depends upon how you're treated at the bar and I’ve had hit or miss experiences with the service. I’ve had more fun at this place when hanging out with larger groups of people rather than my husband and I just chilling at the bar. We usually find ourselves making The Brass Rail our last stop of the night, after we’ve grabbed something from the food trucks a few blocks away (for me it’s always Fernando’s steak nachos). We’ll lay out our spread at one of the booths in the bar and sip on Squints.
One thing to remember is that it is a cash-only establishment. Most people go there for the cheap Hamm’s and the Squints. Never heard of a Squint? It’s simply Squirt soda mixed with gin.....mixed with a lot of gin. They don’t skimp on their pours there and for $3, that’s a pretty good bargain. If you’re feeling munchy, they do have small bags of chips and Butch’s frozen pizza. And like I’ve already mentioned, you can also bring in carry-out.
We stopped in and ordered a pepperoni pizza ($7.50). Pretty expensive for a frozen pizza, but Butch’s pizza is local (has been for over 30 years!) and I know some people who would definitely call it their favorite. You can find it in the frozen food section of some grocery stores in Champaign-Urbana and the price here is comparable to what you’d find in the stores. All are thin crust, 12” round, and a variety of flavors (like potato bacon and white garlic), though the Rail might only have one or two to choose from. Place your order with the bartender and they’ll get it going in the small pizza oven just behind the bar.
We played a few rounds of pinball while we waited for the pizza to cook, which doesn’t take long. Crispy thin crust and melty mozzarella cheese, it’s exactly what you would expect from a frozen pizza. It tastes good at 10:30 p.m. and tastes amazing at 2 a.m. We ordered another PBR draft ($2.50) and listened to the really random range of music coming from the juke box. It’s one of the modern, digital ones that’s connected to the internet so you can find almost anything. There’s video slots towards the back of the room and two TVs that could be playing anything from football to Jeopardy.
I suggest popping in late nights when it tends to get a bit more lively; who knows who you’ll run into. You can have shots with a bridal party, drink Hamm’s with the old timers, or join an impromptu dance party to Prince. There will always be a Squint waiting for you at The Brass Rail.
The Brass Rail is located at 15 East University Avenue and is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday, noon to 2 a.m.
All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake.