Smile Politely

Neil St. Blues buffet brunch is a smorgasbord of Southern cuisine

Growing up, my family went to many an all-you-can-eat buffet. With lots of tummies in our family, buffets were a great way for everyone to eat what they wanted — especially because we all wanted different things. Now as an adult, I don’t partake in buffets often, but my inner child absolutely still loves a buffet. There’s only one place in C-U that serves a Southern-style buffet for brunch, and that’s Neil St. Blues in Downtown Champaign.

The restaurant hosts a weekly Sunday brunch with favorites from the menu served buffet-style. This past Sunday was Juneteenth, and I visited Neil St. Blues to try the holiday brunch. When I arrived to the restaurant, there was already a line of people waiting, and by the time the restaurant opened at 11 a.m., the line for brunch extended down the street. 

Inside Neil St. Blues, there are banners reading

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

It was a busy and fun place to be! The restaurant was decorated with Juneteenth banners and flags, and staff greeted the long line of diners. I checked in with the host, and a server took me to my high top table. There were tables for two, four, six, or larger groups, and upbeat jams played in the dining room.  

A cloth banner reads

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The vibe inside was welcoming, like being a guest in someone’s house for a celebratory meal. The host said to each group, “We’ve got you a table right here,” as he walked each party to their table.

I ordered the signature brunch buffet ($25).

On the buffet at Neil St. Blues, there are large trays of fried chicken, fried catfish, and other dishes in shiny metal containers. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

For the buffet, all diners were asked to wear a mask and gloves. Disposable masks and gloves were provided in addition to hand sanitizer. There were no exceptions, and staff reminded patrons at the start of the buffet.

In a paper towel lined metal container, there are strips of bacon. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Neil St. Blues’ Sunday buffet featured a combination of Southern dishes and classic breakfast dishes. There were strips of thick-cut bacon beside a tray of chicken sausages.

On the buffet, there is a silver metal container with three dividers holding breakfast potatoes, waffle triangles, and biscuits. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Breakfast potatoes, golden waffle triangles, and buttery biscuits were also available.

On a wooden table, there is a metal tray holding plastic individually sized cups of syrup. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

There were individual servings of syrup next to a hot container of white gravy.

In a shiny metal pan, there is an overflowing amount of fried chicken. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I heard angels singing when I walked up to this fried chicken. A huge heated tray of perfectly golden fried chicken — in both white and dark meat options — was available for the taking, and I served myself a fried drumstick.

In a shiny metal container, there is a large amount of fried catfish. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I am ashamed to admit this, but I have never had the fried catfish at Neil St. Blues before. To be fair, I am so obsessed with the fried shrimp here (which was not available at the buffet); I like to order the shrimp and grits, fried shrimp dinner, fried shrimp po boy, or fried shrimp anything. But, for research, I added a piece of fried fish to my plate.

In a giant metal pan, there is a large tray of macaroni and cheese. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

This cheesy, creamy vat of mac was a sight to behold. 

On the buffet line, there are lots of side dishes in hot silver pans with open plastic covers. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The buffet was stocked with lots of sides. The buffet manager was quick to refill trays, give updates to diners who were waiting for a specific dish, and wipe any spills or drips. It was easily the cleanest, best-managed buffet I have ever been to.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Along the buffet, there were more side dishes like cornbread dressing and roasted chicken. Small containers of cranberry sauce, grits, and beans were also on the line.

There are three pans of sides: sweet potato chunks, black-eyed peas, and green beans. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Special for the Juneteenth holiday, there was a black-eyed peas dish, and I scooped some of that along with sweet potatoes and green beans.

A silver tray holds rows of golden cornbread muffins. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The cornbread muffins looked amazing and were an easy grab from the buffet.

On a black table, there are lots of slices of vanilla cake with dark caramel frosting. All plates are clear plastic and there is plastic wrap around the slices. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Cake was available by the slice, pre-cut and plastic-wrapped.

The author's first plate of food features a bit of everything from the buffet. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

On my first plate, I tried to get a little of everything: grits, macaroni, black-eyed peas, syrup, fried chicken, a waffle, fried catfish, bacon, a cornbread muffin, green beans, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, beans, collard greens, sausages, sweet potato, breakfast potatoes, and white gravy.

Good thing I grabbed a piece of fish because my favorite bite ended up being the fried catfish. I loved the salty, crunchy batter and the soft, flaky fish middle. I assembled a mini chicken and waffles on my plate, but I also dipped my chicken in sausage gravy, in buttery grits, and in the cheesy macaroni. The bacon strips were salty and crisp, and the sausage was savory. The grits were creamy, smooth, and well-seasoned with incredible flavor and were not gummy at all.

On a brown table, there is a plate of food from the buffet. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The macaroni had chunks of gooey cheese, and the black-eyed peas dish was cooked with flavorful ham hock. The cornbread muffin had a caramelized cornmeal-grit top above crumbly, slightly sweet cornbread. The hand-cut collard greens had so much flavor from the tender pork in it, and the beans were fantastic. 

Everything tasted great together: sausages and gravy, meat and greens, cornbread and fried chicken, plus all the sides. My colorful plate had a variety of flavors and textures, and it was uniquely portioned to my tastes. That’s the appeal of buffets.

Inside Neil St. Blues in Downtown Champaign, the restaurant is full of diners sitting at tables indoors eating. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The dining room was quickly full before noon, so if you want to eat before 12 p.m., you should arrive at open. There is a dining limit of 90 minutes per party to ensure everyone who wants to enjoy the buffet can have a turn. You could also aim for 12:30 p.m. arrival if you want to catch the second seating of the buffet.

A close up of Neil St. Blues' fried catfish tray on the buffet. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Since it was all-you-can-eat, I went back for a second helping. My first stop was the fried catfish because it was just incredible. Do not sleep on Neil St. Blues’ fish.

A close up of Neil St. Blues' fried chicken on the Sunday buffet line. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The fried chicken looked too appetizing and tasted too good that I had to have another piece.

The author's second plate of food with less food than the first plate, but still featuring small scoops of the buffet. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

My second plate was a collection of my favorite bites from the buffet: cornbread dressing, green beans, black-eyed peas, beans, sweet potato, another cornbread muffin, collard greens, vegan jambalaya, the most amazing catfish, fried chicken, breakfast potatoes, and a good flood of the gravy. 

The cornbread dressing was more like a paste, but I really enjoyed the flavors, especially with the gravy. The vegan jambalaya had perfectly cooked rice with a fresh taste of tomato and peppers — and I wouldn’t have known it was vegan just by taste alone. As Southern-cuisine requires, the sweet potato chunks were soaked in a brown sugar sauce and fork-tender. The beans, peas, cornbread muffin, and collard greens were so good I had to have a second helping.

A close up of the second plate shows a fried chicken wing, collard greens, and a cornbread muffin in focus with the rest of the plate blurred. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The fried chicken was juicy under crisp skin with a great salty taste, and the fried catfish was to die for. I wanted to eat a third plate, but I was too full. 

On a black table, there are plates of cake slices covered with plastic wrap. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Even though I was very full, I did save room for cake — and Neil St. Blues wouldn’t have cut this many slices of cake if they didn’t want me to have a slice of cake. So I tried the cake, too, and it was delicious with a soft vanilla crumb and a rich, thick caramel frosting. 

Outside of Neil St. Blues, there is a sunny day with an empty Neil Street. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

If you find yourself at the same place for Sunday brunch again and again, think about trying a new brunch place. Neil St. Blues is a Downtown Champaign gem serving Southern-style cuisine six days a week, but the Sunday brunch buffet is special — and absolutely worth a try. There’s something on the buffet for everyone, and if you love fried chicken or fried fish, this is the brunch for you.

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 7 p.m.

Top image by Alyssa Buckley.

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