Big Grove Tavern in Downtown Champaign has firmly established itself as a go-to for a variety of dining situations. Brunch? Check. Outdoor patio? Check. Celebratory dinner? Check. Cocktails with friends/co-workers/a date? Check, check, check. While there are plenty of places in town where you can meet up with people (or not) and grab a drink, Big Grove is perhaps one of the more elegant options — the bar area, décor, and overhead lighting create a lovely atmosphere. It’s a fine looking restaurant that happens to have a fine looking bar and a changing cocktail menu. And when those cocktails are only $5 each, somehow they taste even better.
Last Wednesday a couple of friends and I stopped in for mid-week cocktails. Each Wednesday, house cocktails at Big Grove are only $5. That’s a pretty sweet deal considering house cocktails regularly run $7 to $10. We got there a bit before 6:30 p.m. and the bar area was pretty well full. The tables along the glass wall were all occupied. The uneven U-shaped bar’s best seats were taken — that is, the seats along the bend, or the tip, or whatever the round part is called — but there were several open seats at the end of the bar furthest from the front door. This actually worked to our advantage, because not only were we shielded from the cold bursts of air from the opening door, but we are also plopped right in front of the bartender’s mise en place, and therefore, the bartender.
As we sat down he greeted and passed us a drink menu and we took a look. Because the menu changes quasi-seasonally, there are usually a few menu items new to me. Right now the menu reflects the cold dead of winter with a number of cocktails featuring or using bright citrus and earthy spices. Of the former, you’ll find no less than seven house cocktails with either lemon or lime; drinks using the latter include the Hot Buttered Rum ($9) and the Smoked Toddy ($7), which updates the original with smoked honey. There is also an added Hot Cocktail Infusion menu ($10 each) that includes English Bishop, Winter Julep, and Fireplace Tea options.
On this occasion, I opted for the Traditional Aviation ($8): North Shore gin, lemon, crème de violette, maraschino liqueur, garnished with a maraschino cherry. The drink arrived in a martini glass. I was expecting a drink that was a little less blue — when the bartender placed my drink in front of me I was a bit taken back. It sort of looked as if someone milked a smurf, if smurf milk is indeed blue. After recovering from my five seconds of color shock, I sophisticatedly lifted the glass and took a sip. Sophisticatedly might be a stretch for me, but since the bar area appeared to be full of young and no-so-young professionals, it seemed like the best way to fit in. The drink started a bit sweet, got a little lemony in the middle, and had a serious herbal and floral finish. I do think that it was a bit heavy on the crème de violette; the herbal flower punch combined with the gin made me feel like I was drinking an herbal tonic.
My friends order the House Bloody Mary ($7) and the BGT Dark and Stormy ($8). The Bloody Mary is served with a stout back and the combination is quite nice. The Bloody Mary was spicy and acidic, with strong notes of horseradish throughout. The stout back — the small serving of beer served alongside the cocktail — was a rich, slightly sweet chaser for the thick tomato-based cocktail. BGT’s Dark and Stormy is a step away from the traditional version. Instead of using ginger beer, Big Grove uses ginger syrup, which does not the same drink make. Although incredibly beautiful, I found this to be a bit too much rum and a bit too strong for me, but my friend thoroughly enjoyed it.
The drinks were strong, and we were in need of some snacks. We ordered the fried Brussels sprouts ($5.99) and some French fries ($3.99). They arrived quickly. The Brussels sprouts were super crispy on the outside, and tender on the inside. The lemony-truffle aioli lent a nice bit of bright creamy zestiness to the little baby cabbages. Big Grove has some of the best French fries I’ve had in town, when executed properly and served promptly. These were fresh out of the fryer and were crispy little packets of fluffy potato. Quite frankly, we should have ordered two more of each bar snack.
Look, being an adult can be hard. Sometimes work sucks, sometimes home sucks, sometimes you just need to get a drink and eat some fried food. If you head to Big Grove between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, you could not only enjoy the $5 house cocktails (available 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.), but also half-priced bar snacks, which is a super sweet deal. (Or a salty deal, if you will.) Just be sure to sit at the bar. There are plenty of beverage options, but do be responsible about your alcohol intake—those bartenders aren’t skimping on the pours.
Big Grove Tavern is located at 1 Main Street, Champaign. Hill Street Parking Deck tickets are validated. The restaurant is open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Brunch is served on the weekend from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner service begins at 5 p.m.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.