The last time we ran this feature, the landscape of dining in Champaign-Urbana was truly in transition. Black Dog Smoke and Ale House, which had just opened earlier that year, swept everyone off their feet, and took home the top slot. And for good reason: it connected what was accessible with the slow food movement and made it appealing to everyone around.
For the 2009 version, we polled a very large group of people and ranked it, and stuck to the numbers. We also didn’t run any sort of Honorable Mentions list either. In hindsight, we missed a chance to editorialize, and consider more than the hard data. This time, we did it differently. We based our decisions on a wide variety of factors, including, but not limited to, things like: consistency, cultural impact, filling a void, uniqueness, along with presentation, both in real life and on social media.
But in the end, the highest determining factor for us was based on whether or not the food coming out of the kitchen is sincere, and honest.
There are a few restaurants not listed here that will have some of you scratching your head as to the reasons why. There were easily another dozen or so that we could have written about, but we had to draw a line somewhere, and we did.
This is simply our Editorial Board’s list. It’s one we all agreed was the best representation of what were the best examples from this past decade of what is described above. We expect plenty of people to have their say.
In the end, that’s what these things are built to do: inspire discussion.
But let that discussion result in your patronage. All of these restaurants are local to us, and employ our friends and neighbors. Dine there, when you are able. Tip well. And join us in reminding ourselves that living here has much value, especially when it comes to our choices to dine out.
— Seth Fein, Publisher
What started out as a catering business, hustling porketta sandwiches at pop ups and special events, has turned into a full fledged restaurant, and expansive menu, and a playful take on Sicilian cuisine. Chef Jordan Baldarotta and his wife Paris have essentially changed how we eat Italian food here in Champaign-Urbana. The aforementioned porketta sandwich is stellar, but that’s just the start. The meatball smash is perfect. The “Guido” — their take on a classic Italian sub — might unseat The Mindy at Cheese and Crackers for best in town. The pizza is true Sicilian pie, the only place to find it around these parts, and it is the yummiest.
They recently had a fun food-filled mural commissioned to flank the restaurant space inside of Lincoln Square, which is a strong statement of investment into the community. That sort of spells out what the food tastes like: commitment and hard work. This is a place not to be missed. (SF)
Photo by Seth Fein
Broadway Food Hall
Very few entrepreneurs have the courage that Matt Cho does. After initial success with Cafeteria and Co. and Sipyard, he set his sights on a bigger space that could handle more of his ideas. He partnered with Shai Mauth, the former owner of Xinh Xinh Cafe, to execute the menus, and in a flash, Urbana increased the number of restaurants it played host to by 20%.
It was a classic American diner, an East Coast sandwich shop, a poke stand, and a rice bowl joint, all in one. This past year, it capped it off by adding perhaps its crown jewel: 83 Vietnamese. This is a place that any group can agree on, and there’s a lot of value in that for me.
How it develops and changes over the next decade is anyone’s guess. If there is one thing Cho is known for, it’s that he’s full of ideas and surprises, and he doesn’t just talk about them, he makes it so. (SF)
Photo by Anna Longworth
As I made mention in our BEST Food + Drink of the decade feature, Carmon’s was just entirely too short lived. It kinda pains me to think about it in a way because of not just my personal preferences, but the texture it brought to the landscape of the restaurant scene in the early 2010s. The menu, the vibe, the staff, all of it was, from a customer perspective, a really pleasant restaurant experience comprehensively. (PS)
Photo by Justine Bursoni
The whole concept of Lodgic Everyday Community in and of itself is a pretty daring feat — to combine coworking, childcare, a cafe, and a restaurant all into one space. That’s quite a challenge, and Lodgic should be applauded for making that type of investment into the community. When it comes to a restaurant, they could’ve done something that would prove to be high volume at a lower cost, but in the end, that would be counter to their mission. As a result, Everyday Kitchen was born, providing a variety of quality options that’s added a really nice texture to the restaurant community. Quality offerings on their menu as well as from their bar, mixed with a lovely atmosphere, Everyday Kitchen is really just getting started. The restaurant has been around for just over a year, and sure enough, people are starting to notice. Lodgic’s concept on the whole is a long game, and Everyday Kitchen is a quality component to that plan. (PS)
Photo from Everyday Kitchen’s Instagram page
Opening on the edge of East Urbana in an unassuming restaurant space previously home to Sweet Betsy’s a million years ago, Huaraches Moroleon is now truly a neighborhood staple. It serves a menu not dissimilar from any in this particular category around town, but it’s just that the food here is better than the rest of them.
Plus, when you sit down, you are greeted with warm chips and not one or two salsas, but four housemade salsas. The service is friendly and precise. The place is quaint and weird, but in all the right ways. And, they serve American breakfast too — a good one! — alongside traditional Mexican morning stews like pozole and menudo. It’s truly a very good restaurant, and makes the east end of Urbana feel more cohesive because of it. (SF)
Photo by Jessica Hammie
Ten years ago, I had never had Korean food. C-U is such a robust and diverse community, it’s amazing to think that I moved from the Sophisticated East Coast™ to a tiny speck in the Midwest and am exposed to many more cuisines than ever before. Masijta Grill has been open for most of this decade, and the fact that it’s probably better than it was when it first opened is a testament to the quality and consistency of food. I have a hard time swaying from my favorite order (the bibimbap in a hot stone bowl), but that’s okay with me. It’s delicious and I will order something different next time. Maybe. (JH)
Photo by Jessica Hammie
Stango Cuisine is apparently the only Zambian restaurant in the United States, which is pretty damn awesome for us. We named it one of the BEST new restaurants in 2018, and even though it’s only been around for a small portion of the decade, it’s made an indelible mark. The food is delicious, and with the new space in Lincoln Square Mall (not in the food court), it’s got the comfort and ambiance to encourage you to linger over your meal. We’re very excited to continue to support Stango into the next decade. (JH)
Photo by Zoe Valentine
The WheelHouse in St. Joseph opened up in 2017. There just aren’t a ton of restaurants like this in St. Joe — which could mean one of two things: 1) it will never work!, or 2) it will work because this is a place that is lacking in this department.
Thankfully, it appears as though the latter is the situation at the WheelHouse. The restaurant is owned and operated by former Alinea employee Ryan Rogier and his partner Abbie Layden-Rogier. Having only met them a couple of times, there’s just a part of me that believes their narrative as business owners has been driven by the fact they’re doing what they love. As a person that lives in Champaign, I am grateful that this is 20 minutes away from where I live.
The restaurant is extraordinarily unpretentious in the best way. Their menu continues to be clever and creative within the structure of being approachable and recognizable to someone that honestly loves American food. Here’s to hoping they hold strong to what it means to live and eat here in the prairie. (PS)
Photo by Jillian Zwilling
Wood N Hog
This BBQ spot opened in 2016 in the heart of North Champaign, and if you haven’t tried it yet, you are missing out. Owned by brother and sister Michael McDonald and Okema Battle, they offer a rather extensive menu with all of the BBQ staples. The turkey tips are something you’re not going to find other places, and they are delicious. The hand-breaded wings are crunchy and hold up with or without sauce. But my favorite menu item? Fried green tomatoes. Here the Midwest you’re not going to see this on many menus, so I snatch them up when I see them. Wood N Hog’s are wonderful. Lucky for all of us, they’ve been successful enough to open a second location in Urbana. (JM)
Photo by Remington Rock
The 10 BEST new restaurants of the decade
10. Pizzeria Antica
I’m not sure I can say anything about Pizzeria Antica that I haven’t already said. It’s probably my favorite pizza in C-U, which I have mentioned before. I do enjoy ordering a few pies to share with friends, but you have to order one per person because you better believe I am eating an entire one. And yes, I will have a scoop or two of gelato afterward, and no, I do not care if I am stuffed to the point of discomfort. Neapolitan pizza is best eaten immediately so I will waste nothing. (JH)
Photo by Jessica Hammie
9. Nando Milano
Nando, named for a now 13-year-old dachshund you see in the logo, moved into Downtown Champaign in 2016 as a second location. The original is in Wicker Park. This is not your every weekend date night restaurant, unless you have a lot of discretionary dollars to spend on dining, but for an occasional treat it is quite a lovely option. The interior of the restaurant is just what you want from a fancy Italian joint: sleek and modern, yet warm and cozy, though in the past couple of years I’ve discovered the delights of dining on the patio on a nice summer evening. Highly recommend. This is not the place to go if you are in a rush; there’s a leisurely pace to the service, but I’ve enjoyed a few long, lingering, polish off a couple bottles of wine kind of dinners there that have been simply wonderful. The Vullo brothers, Chef Alessio and owner Dario, seem committed to providing C-U with fresh, well-prepared food and a solid option for fine dining. (JM)
Photo by Julie McClure
Let me preface this by saying I seriously mourned the loss of Escobar’s. It was a favorite date night spot, and their sangria was something to cherish. However, I have been very pleased by what Kohinoor brings to the table, so to speak. They haven’t done much with the decor; it’s basically Indian food served in the shell of Escobar’s, but that’s fine. The food is consistently delicious, and served in generous portions. Every time I’ve dined there the service has been great. Everyone we’ve encountered in very kind and genuinely glad that you’re there, and on more than one occasion we’ve been treated to a complimentary sweet tidbit from the kitchen. The menu is expansive, fulfilling all of your masala, paneer, saag, and biryani needs while giving you plenty of options for exploring. And also naan. All the naan. (JM)
Photo by Anna Longworth
7. Watson’s Shack & Rail
In a different decade, Watson’s Shack & Rail probably hits a Top 5 entry here. As you will read below and what we wrote above, there are just so many excellent choices this year. When it opened in early 2016, it was truly anticipated. The high profile location on Neil St., next to the new Hyatt Place, and inside the old Boltini, was under renovation for months, with those familiar brown paper covered windows teasing us along the way.
When we got our hands on the menu, and posted it to this very site, the response was massive. In fact, it was one of the most viewed articles of the decade, and for good reason. It was everything we all wanted it to be: Nashville meets Shelbyville. New Orleans meets Chicago. Champaign meets Urbana: a place for everyone to enjoy.
Led behind Alec Gillespie and Sean Baird, two townies who knew what pulse to take at the right time, the fried chicken coming out of the kitchen was certainly the star of the show, but was only a part of what everyone loved. Chicharrones served in a popcorn bucket, dusted with cheeto-like powder. House made pickles, along with pimento cheese on plain saltine crackers. Steaming bowls of gumbo. Expertly crafted cocktails, and with slushie machines to make it that much more fun.
Let it be known that Watson’s was not the first in the world to serve boozie slushies, but here in C-U, they certainly set the trend. And I think that sort of says it all: Watson’s has been influential on our dining scene here in this city, and you can see that on display all the time. It’s a busy place, and for good reason. (SF)
Photo by Anna Longworth
6. Caribbean Grill
I am so happy to eat Caribbean Grill’s food. Like many, I first experienced CG at Taste of C-U. It was hard to get to Refinery to get lunch on Wednesdays, but when I did, it was always a treat. Fast forward a couple of years: Caribbean Grill has the best food truck of the decade, and a restaurant that is among our favorites. The food is among the most consistent at any restaurant in the area, which is to say it is always fantastic. I understand why they’ve rolled back on making the food super spicy (sauce is available on the side, now), but man oh man that jerk sauce is incredible. I want to pour it on everything. (JH)
Photo by Matthew Macomber
When MIGA opened, it became a welcomed addition to Downtown Champaign, which featured a lot of bars and casual sit-down restaurants already. Even in the dense center of Champaign’s restaurant scene, aside from bacaro, there really weren’t any other truly upscale dining experiences in Downtown Champaign. There was a void to be filled, and in walked MIGA with an approachable-yet-upscale vibe.
The menu is a progressive Asian cuisine that encourages you to go for it with a rib-eye or scallop dish while providing newer options like sushi platters. Honestly, it is just a fun place to go to eat and drink, almost immediately becoming a favorite once it landed in M2. That’s the thing about going out to eat at restaurants like this one: The experience is always better when you look around and just go “whoa” — but can be totally dismantled if the food isn’t delish. Thankfully, MIGA has proven sustainable and yes, delicious, and one of the best restaurants in Champaign-Urbana. (PS)
Photo by Anna Longworth
This was a much anticipated addition to the restaurant scene, and just squeezed into the decade, opening early in 2019. As you can see, there are two other Jin Park restaurants in this best list that have been around a bit. Throw in Thad Morrow, former owner and head chef at bacaro (RIP), and this was bound to be a winner. We had to wait awhile to experience NAYA — we announced its intentions back in January 2018 and it officially opened in March 2019 — but they did a pretty clever thing in the interim. Throughout the summer of 2018, you could order NAYA specials at Miga. It kept our interest while allowing Morrow to experiment with possible menu items. The cuisine is Italian, with an Asian flair, and everything I’ve had is delish. The menu is laid out in a way that makes sampling and sharing easy, which I appreciate, and the ambience is warm and welcoming. Personal favorites are the bulgogi risotto, rigatoni bolognese, and orange olive oil cake with marscapone, but I’ve yet to have a bad bite. (JM)
Photo by Jessica Hammie
If you’ve ever been to Sakanaya on Green Street in the midst of this newest era of Campustown, you know that getting in the door is sometimes the hardest part of eating at this restaurant. It’s nice that there is an app to help alleviate the wait time struggle; this is a place that demanded it. If getting a seat at this restaurant is the problem, things are probably going very well and that restaurant should just continue to keep doing what they are doing.
The thing I love about Sakanaya is that it is simultaneously both upscale and casual. The modern touches and design makes you feel like you’re in a secret hole-in-the-wall restaurant while at the same time getting a quick bite with your best friend. Ramen, bento, sushi, chicken wings, and beyond, Sakanaya is a restaurant that feels familiar while tasting extraordinary. As Jin Park continues to create restaurants, Sakanaya remains the one that feels like a secret even though it is a favorite go-to spot. (PS)
Photo by Veronica Mullen
2. Golden Harbor
I love Golden Harbor, and you should too. What else is there to say about this delicious and amazing Chinese food restaurant? (JH)
Photo by Jessica Hammie
When Maize Mexican Grill took over the little shack on First and Green in 2011, it was without much fanfare or anticipation. The restaurant, which previously housed Ye Olde Donuts, Noe’s BBQ, and Derald’s over the previous decade, opened quietly, with just a small vinyl banner out front that had a drawing of a couple of Mexican farmers tilling land.
I reviewed it on a whim, two weeks after it opened, stumbling into it with my friend John late at night, just to see what it was all about. We both left with full bellies and with a sense of true elation. This was truly fantastic Mexican food; the owner Armando Sandoval was fairly new to town and opened up shop knowing that there was nowhere else in Champaign-Urbana that was doing his country’s cuisine quite as well as he could. Tortillas and salsas were made fresh. The proteins were unctuous. The menu featured items you would normally find only south of the border: huitlacoche, flor de calabazas, lengua de cerdo, cabeza — things that were previously only available inside Mexican groceries, but never on menus for ordering.
It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Within weeks, the place was basically line out the door at lunch, and extended to dinner. He had to double his staff, and work 16 hour days to keep up. Maize had arrived, and a new standard for serving antojitos was set.
Antojitos is where Maize truly excels. That word translates to “little cravings” and it’s sort of a perfect way to describe what you are eating: tacos, tlacoyos, gorditas, huaraches, quesadillas. It’s what Mexicans eat on the street, from a cart, standing with a plate in hand, no table. From morning until late, this is available pretty much everywhere down south in North America, and it was now available in Champaign-Urbana, for the first time really.
We’ve not stopped writing about Maize over the past decade, and for good reason. Sandoval keeps doing the hard work, expanding into a bigger space with a second location in Downtown Champaign, into a food truck, and onto the tables of so many parties through catering that is as ubiquitous in town as the day is long.
The food itself is almost universally acclaimed. It’s a restaurant that people who live here bring their visiting friends to because it’s a source of pride. Maize stands with the best food being served anywhere in the United States of America. That it comes from the United Mexican States should be a showcase and reminder to us that we all benefit from immigration, and always have. We are a better community for having celebrated this restaurant, and its founder, Armando Sandoval. Indeed, this is what our country is supposed to look like. (SF)
Photo by Sam Logan
Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer contributed to this article.