Black Dog Smoke & Ale House, perhaps the most adored and exclusive eatery in all of Champaign-Urbana, has completed the restoration of the old old train station in Downtown Champaign. Two weeks ago, the restaurant opened its real doors to the public after a couple months of carryout only. When I went for dinner last week, it was packed. And it wasn’t even the weekend!
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the wait. People love Black Dog. And rightfully so, I’d add. It’s delicious. But daaammnnnn, people! The parking lot was packed, and the foyer and entry of the restaurant were crowded with people. The host station is located to the left once you’re just inside the restaurant. When you approach the station, there’s an iPad on which you can enter your name and your party size; you’re added to the list. You can also enter your phone number to receive a message when your table is ready. I recommend this, especially in cold weather, or particularly crowded conditions. I was told our wait would be about 30 minutes, which was pretty impressive considering the restaurant was abuzz with bodies. There’s a mid-sized waiting area behind the host station—a corral, if you will—that was tightly packed with waiting patrons.
I initially chose to find some wall space in the entry, which was already a bit crowded. In good (read, warm) weather, it won’t be so terrible to wait outside, and there will be outdoor seating. Until then, it’s probably best to wait in the car if all other floor space is occupied. (Also, you won’t have witness the awkward exchange between two people who haven’t seen each other since high school, and aren’t really friends except for on Facebook, which means they already know the essentials of each others’ lives and still don’t give a shit. Weird.)
The space looks great. The capacity is about 160 or so, I think, with space for another 58-ish outside, which is obviously larger than the Urbana location by twofold(-ish). The interior space was completely redone, or maybe I should simply say done, since there wasn’t anything in the space when Black Dog took it on. The half-million dollar investment in renovations seems to have paid off—aesthetically the restaurant looks inviting and matches the décor (more or less) of the Urbana location. The bar is huge; there is plenty of seating for singles or doubles looking to grab a drink and a bite. The belt-driven ceiling fans over the bar nod to the age of the building and are certainly interesting to look at. The exposed brick and dark wood lend a sense of time, importance, and contemporary “traditional” design. The orange walls and bar encourage your appetite.
to the right
to the left
While waiting for our table, and after witnessing the strange exchange between those two high school frenemies, I ordered a Moscow Mule from the bar ($6) and relocated to the waiting area. The drink was pretty tasty, but admittedly not the best one I’ve ever had. The price was more than reasonable, though, and I didn’t feel like I was getting ripped off on cocktails. Shortly thereafter, our table was called, and my party of four was escorted away from the corral and to our table.
After hearing the specials for the day (mac and cheese side, duck platter), my table settled on an order of the BBQ Nachos ($8.95) to start. I feel compelled to say that I generally loathe the very idea and existence of BBQ nachos, but heard from a friend that these were not to be missed. We selected pulled pork and ghost pepper cheese (ghost peppers are totally having a moment right now, but don’t try to be a hero by downing one without the proper support in place), and left off the pickled jalapeños. Pit beans also make an appearance on this mound of delicious. The ghost pepper cheese made my mouth tingle, but didn’t leave me needing a glass of milk. (The nachos did not include disgusting pump cheese
jiz wiz.) Served with a side of BBQ ranch, they were hot, spicy, meaty, and filling. They could easily be a meal. Maybe lunch.
At the time of ordering all the food, I fell victim to the effect of color psychology: I ordered a two-meat combo platter, with two carb sides ($13.95). Mischief managed, point to Black Dog. I was surprised to learn that burnt ends were still available, and so I ordered them, ½ of a chicken, the Thursday special side of mac and cheese, and my go-to favorite side, the twice baked potato casserole, extra Hot Georgia Peach sauce, always. (The duck was gone by the time we ordered.)
so nice, I had to show you twice
After mowing through the tasty nachos, I was worried that I had ordered too much food, and worse, that I would eat all of it.
When the food did arrive, it looked great. Take a look:
combo platter with burnt ends, chicken, mac and cheese, twice baked potato casserole, $13.95
smoked catfish platter, sweet potato fries, $12.95
pulled rib sandwich, French fries, $8.95
brisket sandwich, mac and cheese, georgia peach sauce, $8.95
The food tasted awesome, as usual. Champaign or Urbana, Black Dog is showing that it can deliver consistent, meaty scrumptiousness. According to a post on the restaurant’s website, management/the kitchen are tweaking some menu items, and there may be a few differences from the menu posted on the website and the menu available in the restaurant. If any menu changes involve the permanence of the BBQ nachos, I’m on board.
With such a huge following, I have no doubt that the Champaign location will be as successful as the Urbana one. And for those of us who live in Champaign, it’s much easier to pick up a take out order from Downtown Champaign than the Downtown Urbana location. But with this new location, the consistency of both menu items and restaurant décor, the demand for delicious smoked meats at both locations, and the fairly regular national accolades, I wonder if folks (capitalists, opportunists, investors, evil geniuses) are thinking that Black Dog Smoke & Ale House might be worthy of yet another location. Or franchises. That sounds terrible to me. So please don’t do that. Let C-U keep you.
Black Dog Champaign is open Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m, and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant is currently closed on Monday and Tuesday. (And it will be closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.) For more information, visit the Champaign location’s Facebook page.
All photos by Jessica Hammie