Visit Champaign County’s Restaurant Week begins today, Friday, January 26th, and continues through Saturday, February 3rd. This is the second year Visit Champaign County has organized the event. Last year’s celebration of Champaign County’s dining establishments was well received and that looks to have affected the increase in restaurant participation this year. The inclusion of two weekends creates more opportunities for people to visit when they’re most likely to have the time.
Each time I write about Restaurant Week I am compelled to establish some parameters for assessment and discussion. If you’ve been keeping up with SP’s Restaurant Week coverage, this will be redundant. Apologies; scroll down. Restaurant Week includes all of Champaign County, though most of the participating restaurants are in Champaign-Urbana. RW is intended to be a celebration of Champaign County’s diverse dining options, as well as an opportunity to drum up traffic during a slower time of year.
I think RW should be a little more than that. Marking a week as special elicits diners’ expectation of specialness. I think it should and easily could be an opportunity for restaurants to showcase their best, at prices that are slightly below normal. RW offers the opportunity to bring in potential new diners and reward those who are regulars. I believe that participation should be curated — that is, restaurants should have to offer an actual RW menu, not just say they’re participating (I’m looking at you, bacaro and Caribbean Grill). RW menus should be straightforward — this is why the prix fixe works so well. It’s on Visit Champaign County to determine and implement those criteria.
Visit Champaign County is sponsoring a social media campaign during the week: Share photos of your meals on social media using #CCRestaurantWeek, and you’ll have an opportunity to win a $100 gift card for a Champaign County restaurant of your choosing.
All of the menus, except for KoFusion’s, are available on Visit Champaign County’s website.
There are twenty-five participating restaurants. That makes for a lot of options. There are menus at a bunch of different price points, lunch and dinner options (can we get breakfast/brunch next year?), and opportunities to share meals. There are a couple of random things to keep in mind: Silvercreek is not offering the RW menu on Sunday, January 28th; many restaurants are closed on Mondays.
I’ve put together some suggestions based on a variety of criteria. Feel free to share your RW experiences in the comments.
Dining with kids
If you’re dining out with small children, I’m not convinced that RW offers the menus and options for that sort of thing. In this case, you should pick the place you want to visit, and then double check that the kids’ menu is enough for your little ones. If your kids are older and able to safely eat with a knife and fork, consider Pizzeria Antica where you’ll get a salad, a pizza, and a scoop of gelato for $19. Hopefully two kids can share a pizza and a salad, though you’ll have to order another scoop of gelato. There’s no sharing that. If they’re old enough to eat as adults, then you’ll need to use a different criterion for selecting a restaurant.
Miga is where you want to go ($29).
Dining on a budget
Kohinoor: samosa, green salad, entrée (with rice or naan), mango lassi, $15 (vegetarian) or $20 (meat). Both of the options will give you a lot of food (maybe enough for leftovers). You won’t find many other dinner options for less than $20.
Pizzeria Antica: salad, pizza, gelato, $19. This is more than enough food for one. If you have a small appetite, you could share this meal with another person. If you split the cost, you’re getting a really good deal.
Best bang for your buck
Perhaps the best “deal” is the one offered by Hamilton Walker’s: soup or salad, steak or salmon with green beans and mashed potatoes, and dessert for $19. It’s no secret that the restaurant hasn’t exactly delivered on all that it promised during the months-long promotional campaign leading up to its opening last year. This low price point is clearly a ploy to get people in the door, and that’s cool with me. I sincerely hope that the food is good — though I suppose food often tastes better when you’re getting a “deal.”
Nando Milano is also a place where you’ll likely get the most for your money. Last year’s meal was really, really good. For $39 you’ll get an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. The prix fixe is an easier pill to swallow than $16 for the appetizer, $24 for the entrée, $10 for dessert.
Silvercreek’s lunch (soda, soup, second course, cookie; $12) is more than enough to feel satisfied at lunch. At $12, it’s not the cheapest lunch option, but you’re sitting down in a restaurant with a server, and there are nine second-course/entrée options.
Baxter’s lunch includes an entrée and dessert for $9, which is practically free. The entrée options aren’t all that compelling but they’re totally fine for lunch, and they are full of animals, so vegetarians need to sit this one out. I think most people frown upon gooey butter cake or crème brulee in the middle of the day, but I am not one of those people.
The obvious choice here is The Bread Company, since the menu is literally meant for sharing (two appetizers, double portion of hot cheese, two desserts, $35). But I suggest that you go to a place where you and your sharing person(s) are interested in multiple menu items, and that you share from there. Kohinoor is perfect for this, and the more friends you have, the more you can sample. Radio Maria has a selection of three appetizers ($12), as well as a three-course fish dinner ($35) that should be enough for two.
Outside of C-U
The winner in this group is C&C Kitchen in Rantoul. For $15 you get two po’ boy sandwiches, each served with fries (so bring a friend, or an appetite). Choices include catfish, shrimp, alligator, or brisket — you’re not going to find catfish or alligator on any other RW menus.
Honorable mention goes to The WheelHouse in St. Joe, which is serving a three-course dinner for $29. Entrée choices are limited, but they do include a vegetarian option.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include Dancing Dog, the only vegan eatery participating. Dinner ($25) includes three courses, though the first two are appetizers (soup or salad, cauliflower or Brussels). The third course is a “burger” and the second is the same roasted veggie sandwich offered on the RW lunch menu. Dancing Dog does such great vegan desserts, so I’m a bit disappointed that dessert isn’t included at dinner.
V. Picasso’s RW menu appears to be entirely vegetarian and includes fried butternut squash, artichoke tortelloni, and gooey butter cake ($29).
I love Watson’s tofu po’ boy sandwich. It’s delicious.
Additional information is available on Visit Champaign County’s website.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.