Before all of the craziness of this pandemic got into full swing, I celebrated my birthday with a large group of friends at Neil St. Blues. One of the owners was kind enough to come out from the bustling kitchen to greet me and wish me a happy birthday. I’ve eaten there many times since, but I will always remember that night as incredibly special, and one reason was the location of Neil St. Blues with its fun atmosphere and warm customer service.
Now that our state is allowing limited indoor dining I’m looking forward to visiting again and enjoying a good meal with a side of live music. I was able to have an interview with Neil St. Blues owner Gayle Starks to talk about the menu, the chefs who developed the recipes, and how Neil St. Blues is adjusting during the pandemic.
Smile Politely: Hello, Gayle! Can you talka about what led you to create Neil St. Blues?
Gayle Starks: The entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in our family. For a long time, my family and I have talked about opening up a place that featured live music, dancing, and good food. Every time we would visit other cities, there was always a nice place to go out and enjoy a bit of entertainment and good food with family and friends. We felt that this was missing in our community, and we decided to take a chance and start up Neil St. Blues.
SP: How do you feel the music inspires the menu and vise versa? Do you have a favorite blues artist(s)?
Starks: The music, food, and the atmosphere are all inspired by family history and experiences. My grandmother Eular Mae Henderson was well known in the community and always reached out to help people. She was an awesome cook and worked for many years as a head cook at the University of Illinois. She never let anyone leave her house without offering them a delicious, hot meal and a potential solution to whatever problem they were having. At the end of the day, people left her house feeling better than when they came.
Every family event involved food, music and dancing — kids and adults alike! That’s the atmosphere that we try to create at Neil St. Blues. We want people to have a place to enjoy good food, good music, and even dance when the spirit hits them.
I can’t say that I have a favorite blues artist. I just love blues and live music in general. I have always been awed by creative talented musicians. I am a very shy person by nature and tend to stay in the background, so watching musicians perform their talents in front of people and making an entire group sway and move to their beat is so remarkable to me.
SP: Who was your biggest culinary influence? What was your favorite dish growing up?
Starks: My grandmother was my biggest culinary influence. She was just a darn good cook! My grandma could cook anything: Southern, Italian, Louisiana Creole, Chinese, wild, or domesticated. I never realized how blessed we were to have experienced so many culinary influences in our daily meals. I’m sure her experiences working in an internationally attended university helped her to broaden her talents, but she had a way of adding just a little bit of her own touch that made it taste just a little better. She could taste a dish and tell you instantly what was missing.
My favorite dish? Too hard to narrow down. I loved fried chicken days, but gumbo and peach cobbler stand out also.
SP: Tell us a bit about the dishes on your current menu?
Starks: We have a variety of menu items; some are Southern-inspired and others have a bit of Creole inspiration. I’ve had a few local chefs that have each contributed something to our current menu. Chef Curtis McGhee and his wife Meisha helped develop our vegan dishes. Chef Christina Glass added crab cakes and greatly influenced our Creole pasta dish. Chef Jacob Paul and my son Michael Starks made sure that our ribs met the test! Other items such as collard greens, candied yams, gumbo, fried chicken, and catfish are all influenced by Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house.
SP: Can you talk about the frog legs on your appetizer list?
Starks: Frog legs are a popular item on the menu. They are lightly battered, deep fried, and served with a slightly spicy remoulade sauce. We wanted to add a few items to our menu that are more unique to the South, and frog legs jumped to the top of the list, no pun intended.
SP: What is your favorite dish on the menu right now, and why?
Starks: I love our vegan oyster mushroom po boy and our smoked ribs. I love fried mushrooms and the oyster mushroom is particularly meaty and tasteful. The smoked ribs are just good eatin’. They are a baby back meaty rib, and the flavor is smokey and the texture tender.
SP: I read that limited indoor seating has recently been allowed. Yes! Are you currently booking live bands as well?
Starks: We have temporarily stopped scheduling live entertainment due to COVID-19. We have patio seating when the weather permits and often pipe music outside through a speaker system. We hope to start scheduling live events again soon. People can watch our website for updates information.
SP: Can you talk about your Artisan Cup & Fork experience? You won the People’s Choice first place restaurant.
Starks: This experience was absolutely phenomenal. It pushed us to be creative with a takeout meal concept, and it introduced us to a lot of local food producers that carry phenomenal products. I’ve never tasted a better bacon than that sold by Triple-S Farms. Everything from milk to garlic had a much fresher and notable flavor. It really made us feel good to support local producers because we are part of the community and want to see our community thrive.
Supporting local business is so important. Local business owners live and pay taxes locally. We are vested in the community and care about how our community members are impacted by the business decisions we make. We often pay higher wages to our employees, and we are here for the long term. Local business is what gives a community flavor and diversity. Can you imagine a world where every city was the same? The same chain stores, the same restaurants, the same types of entertainment. Soon there would be no reason to go explore different places because they would all be so similar. That’s why we were so glad to be a part of the Artisan Cup & Fork experience. It was an opportunity to showcase local diversity in food and flavors. We are so humbled by the People’s Choice award. It makes us more determined to keep improving and to make a positive difference in our community. Thank you, Champaign-Urbana!
SP: How are you and your team doing during these tough times? What’s it been like operating a restaurant in a pandemic?
Starks: We have had many ups and downs. The unknown has made it really tough to operate on a day-to-day basis. We were doing okay with outdoor seating during the warmer weather, but the cold temperatures have definitely impacted our sales. We are survivors, though. One thing that my grandmother taught us was that hard times are just a part of life, so adjust. We are adjusting and look forward to rebounding once COVID-19 is part of our past.
SP: What changes have you made to the restaurant?
Starks: We are definitely focusing on our online ordering platforms. We’re now on Door Dash! We are working on improving our take out containers to make sure our food arrives as intended. We also have temporarily reduced our menu to limit exposure to food waste. Additionally, we are now closed on Mondays for deep cleaning and employee training.
SP: How can customers help make the carryout process easier?
Starks: Our customers are fantastic! We appreciate the orders, and just hope that they order more often.
SP: Anything else you’d like to share with our C-U readers?
Starks: We are so thankful for community support. Our community is great! We look forward to being a part of the downtown landscape for a long time, and hope that we will be the place that you bring your friends and family for a “Taste of the South.”
Neil St. Blues
301 N Neil St
T-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.