This weekend Crane Alley celebrates its 10th year in business. Ten years in the restaurant business is no small potatoes, especially around these parts where restaurants come and go more frequently than the students. It’s located in historic downtown Urbana, and is one of a handful of places to stick it out during the area’s recent lull and current redevelopment.
Crane Alley has one of the widest selections of beers in C-U, and the selections change frequently. Flights are available for the indecisive and curious. You can even take the Beer Tour, which allows you, the traveler, to taste, sample, and otherwise travel the world without leaving your bar stool. Your Beer Tour card tracks the different beers you sample (only 4 per day, you lushes), and once you meet certain markers, you earn prizes. The ultimate prize — after sampling 100 different beers — is your name on an engraved nameplate plastered to Crane Alley’s wall for all to see.
The food menu isn’t all that shabby either. The restaurant offers a gastropub-inspired menu with plenty of creative, gourmet burgers and other equally creative, but more traditional entrées. The sandwich selections are by far the most robust, and include a variety of burgers, two Reubens, a grilled portobella, and falafel. Traditional entrées include butternut squash ravioli, hangar steak, and jambalaya. Daily specials typically feature an appetizer, a soup, an entrée, and a dessert.
Even though this restaurant has killer beer and burger menus, the highlight of visiting Crane Alley for me is its outdoor seating area. It definitely has one of the best outdoor seating areas in all of C-U, and those seats are the best in the house. Although the alley is narrow, the space doesn’t seem too crowded. Seating is positioned so that you feel like you’re eating, drinking, and socializing in an exciting place, but you’re neighbor isn’t eavesdropping on your entire conversation. The height of the buildings block discomforting winds and burning sunshine, and carefully allow just enough airflow and raking light to create a lovey, charming, brick-lined eating environment.
In the last few years, Crane Alley has hosted a number of events, including their annual Crawfish Boil (which just celebrated its 5th year). Since 2008, they have also hosted one or two beer dinners a year. These beer-inspired menus utilize craft beers and ingredients in interesting and imaginative ways. If you have an opportunity to attend a beer dinner, you should, as it will be well worth your time.
To celebrate 10 years existence, Crane Alley is throwing itself a birthday bash.They’re hosting their own patio party, right in the alley. The menu features sliders and at least six different beers on draft outside, and plenty more inside the restaurant. That’s right, they’re going to have a beer truck parked right outside. The sliders are former burger specials specially shrunken down for this event. I think this is a fun way to revisit old favorites and celebrate the restaurant’s decade of serving up rare beers and schmancy burgers. It’s an easy and accessible way to sample the past without committing to a full-on walk down memory lane. Think of it as a carefully curated reunion of the folks from your past you actually want to see. You can have a little taste of some sliders, wash them down with some rare and import beers, and soak in the Saturday afternoon sunshine.
We recently spoke with Scott Glassman, founder and owner of Crane Alley. Check out our interview:
Smile Politely: As Crane Alley celebrates its 10th anniversary, can you share with us its origin story, and how you came up with the concept?
Scott Glassman: I always enjoyed hanging out at bars with a great beer selection and going to restaurants with good food. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a place that offered both. I wanted to create a place where you could have an amazing beer and great food, where you could go for a great meal or stay and hang out all night. Not having to choose one or the other when deciding where you wanted to go seemed like a good idea.
SP: How has the restaurant developed over the past 10 years?
Glassman: Our beer selection started at around 100 and now it hovers around 240 depending on what seasonals we can get our hands on. In the early years we hardly ever had private parties in the mezzanine and now they are non-stop. In the last few years we started offering food specials on a daily basis which has had a great response, our head chef Brad Ledbetter runs a great crew and really knows how to come up with some delicious specials, as well as putting on some truly inspiring beer dinners. We also have a lot more events than we used to.
SP: How have you seen the food and drink culture in downtown Urbana shift over the last decade?
Glassman: It definitely has become better as far as the craft beer crowd goes.
SP: What would you cite as your biggest accomplishment with Crane Alley?
Glassman: Staying open and not having to change the original concept for 10 years.
SP: Can you share with us one of the largest obstacles the restaurant has had to overcome?
Glassman: One big one was definitely when Urbana instilled the smoking ban and Champaign did not. For 10 months it was a battle just to stay open. For the last few months, I didn’t know if I would be open from one day to the next. I’m glad I can say we got though it.
SP: What drives you to succeed professionally?
Glassman: I’ve always enjoyed a good challenge. Some might say its stubbornness, but I think it’s just a drive I’ve always had. With Crane Alley it’s a win-win situation, When Crane Alley does well, the employees do too. And in turn the customers have a great experience. That’s what drives me and makes me feel like I’m contributing to something bigger. All of this, however, depends on having a great staff and we truly have great people working at Crane Alley to make this happen.
SP: Talk to us about beer. How do you keep up on all of the different brews, and how do you curate the beer selection?
Glassman: You really have to stay on top of what is trending in the beer world. Sometimes a beer might have great marketing but is actually terrible, sometimes it’s the opposite. Our GM, Aaron Wood, is fantastic on creating our beer selections and he keeps the beers constantly rotating. It’s almost impossible to come into Crane Alley and not have the opportunity to try a new beer on a daily basis. That’s why we have the World Wide Beer Tour, it gives you the chance to try a lot of different beers and keep track of them along the way, not to mention getting gifts when reaching the progressing tiers. When you finish the tour you get a name plate that is put up on the wall, forever immortalizing you at Crane Alley.
SP: Based on sales, what’s your customers’ favorite drink?
Glassman: That’s a tough one. Considering our vast selection of beer, scotch and spirits, they all sell very well.
SP: What statement do you want the food at Crane Alley to make?
Glassman: An eclectic mix of old favorites and original ideas.
SP: How do you determine the food menu?
Glassman: At least once or twice a year we try to change the menu up a little. Brad Ledbetter has no problem coming up with new and fresh ideas. We collaborate on those and pick the best ones.
SP: Based on sales, what’s the most popular item on the food menu?
Glassman: Another tough one. They really all sell very well.
SP: What’s your favorite meal at the restaurant?
Glassman: Right now it’s a tie between the scallop entrée and the ragout nachos when they are on special. But with all the daily specials that could change.
SP: If you were to time travel to 10 years in the future and visit the restaurant, what would you want to see?
Glassman: It still in business!
SP: We’ve talked concept, beer, and food. What’s one lesser-known tidbit about Crane Alley you’d like SP readers to know?
Glassman: Crane Alley is located in a Historical Landmark. The building was built in the late 1800’s when Main Street was just a dirt road. The building was originally a J.C. Penny when you had to go by horse and buggy to get there. I think it really adds a lot of character knowing the history of the building.
Crane Alley’s 10th anniversary celebration is Saturday, August 31 at 3 p.m. Find them at 115 West Main Street in Urbana.
Photos courtesy of Chelsea Fisher.