I decided to begin this quest for the best after I went with a friend to a national chain that specializes in burgers and fresh-cut French fries, expecting to be blown away by their famous fries. I don’t eat meat, so the only thing I was interested in was the (very expensive) French fries for which they’re renowned. I have to admit, the fries were a bit underwhelming. After paying over $6 for a large order, I expected these fries to knock my socks off, but, sadly, they were truly nothing special — the limp, soggy, overly thick-cut spuds failed to live up to their hype. They basically tasted like baked potatoes dipped in ketchup. Convinced I could find something better from a locally-owned restaurant, I set out on a mission to find the best fresh-cut French fries in C-U.
My first stop was one of the aforementioned burger chain’s direct competitors, Meatheads. Although Meatheads is a fast-growing chain, with 17 locations across the state (almost exclusively in the Chicago suburbs), they were started only 10 years ago in neighboring Bloomington, Illinois, and they retain very strong ties with the local community. They support local organizations with their “cowmunity spotlight” and they sponsor family-friendly programs like a summer reading contest for kids. This is a local business made good, and they are quickly growing into a very successful restaurant chain.
Upon entering Meatheads, guests are greeted by a friendly cashier and an easy to navigate menu. Their prices are reasonable and their portions are very generous. I ordered a small fries for $2, and I took a seat in one of their many comfy booths. I was given a number and told they would bring my food to my table, which was a nice customer service touch. The expansive dining room and open kitchen were both very clean. There was plenty of natural lighting from front windows and a nice outdoor seating area. I liked how the napkins and condiments were placed in a caddy on each table; nifty sea salt and black peppercorn grinders, yellow mustard and house brand ketchup sat conveniently within arm’s reach of each diner. There was quality music being played at just the right level.
Within minutes, I was brought a giant basket of freshly made fries. The portion size exceeded my expectations, and the fries were delicious. They were thin-cut, as opposed to the thicker cut fries served by their competitor, which I preferred. They were also nice and crisp, not limp and chewy, and they had a perfect golden brown color along with a pleasant, light potato flavor; they didn’t just taste like salt and grease. Although these were not the absolute best of the sampled restaurants, they were very tasty, and an exceptional value. I have to say this place has a lot going for it — location, ambience, affordability, menu diversity, and a great business model that emphasizes giving back to the community. They even have a drive-through. It’s no wonder they have been able to grow so rapidly.
My second stop was to a local icon, Murphy’s Pub, which has been serving great fresh-cut fries and quality sandwiches since 1969. Located in the heart of Campustown, Murphy’s is one place alumni make certain to visit when they return, and local residents still brave the campus chaos for their beloved burgers and fries. Murphy’s has undergone quite a bit of expansion from the original layout, but prices have remained anachronistic. They still offer $5 daily specials, and they have added meal deals which include an entrée, side, and a soft drink for only $5 to $7 each. The uniquely warm atmosphere has remained much the same over the years, despite their renovations; the mix of neon beer signs and natural light from their front windows illuminates the old wooden booths that have been covered with etchings of past bar-goers’ names and random graffiti. The service and atmosphere, for a campus bar, is truly exceptional. The kitchen and bar staff are very friendly and accommodating, and they keep the place impressively clean.
I ordered a large basket of fries from the bar ($3.75, tax included), and my number was called from the kitchen very quickly. The pleasant young cook handed me my paper basket of fries, pointed out the condiment section, and thanked me with a smile. I sat at a booth by the window and watched the campus life stroll by. I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. I have very fond memories of the original, smaller Murphy’s, which served as a campus oasis, of sorts. They have always offered extremely good food at an exceptionally affordable price, and they have always had pleasant workers. Back when I was a very poor college student, it was a guilt-free treat to indulge in a Mega Burger and fries for lunch without feeling a huge pinch on my pocketbook. Their fries are still really good. Keeping with tradition, they blanch them and fry them fresh to order, so they come out audibly crisp when bitten into. They appear to use smaller potatoes than some of the other places I tried, leading to considerably greater prominence of outer skin and a bit of a chewy texture. These fries are very tasty, not quite as good as Meatheads’, but they are definitely worth the trip to campus. If you find yourself already in the neighborhood, you can’t go wrong stopping in for an extremely affordable meal in a great setting.
The next stop on my quest for the perfect fry was Farren’s. I’ve been a huge fan of this fantastic local eatery since owner Carolyn Farren opened it in 2000. The eclectic menu offers great sandwiches and entrées, and unique signature burgers. A large basket of their fresh-cut fries is only $3.75, and you get your money’s worth. This basement-level pub serves high quality, no-nonsense food, and they make great use of their space. There are ample tables and a nice sized bar with plenty of seating. Farren’s has that rare quality of balancing a great bar and restaurant simultaneously, and their open kitchen is always busy. Even though it is a pub, I feel perfectly comfortable bringing my children. Everything is made to order, so expect a slight wait for your food, but it’s definitely worth it. The fries are exceptional: light and crispy, with a slight orange hue to them. They are pre-blanched to ensure a crispy outer edge, and they come perfectly salted. I prefer these fries to Meatheads’, just a bit, as they have a slightly darker color and a bit more crunch to them. If you’re looking for a great, casual place to share fantastic fries, a cold beer, and an outstanding burger with friends or family, this local gem is definitely the place.
Another amazing place for fresh-cut fries is Dancing Dog Eatery and Juicery. Of the five restaurants reviewed in this article, I think Dancing Dog has the most unique fries. For starters, they cut their fries into thicker pieces than the other places, yielding a very hearty potato flavor. They also choose large potatoes which produce sizable fries and a rich, orange-yellow color, without a predominance of outer skin. Unlike the limp, thicker-cut fries from the national burger behemoth mentioned at the top of this article, these fries are crispy and delicious. The chef does a masterful job preparing them, as they are soaked, blanched, cooled, and then fried to order, to ensure a very crispy outer texture, with a soft, creamy inside. What also sets these fries apart is Dancing Dog is completely vegan, so there is no residual random flavor from things like chicken strips mingling with the French fries. A huge plus is they also make their own ketchup. Let me tell you: if you haven’t sampled this amazing, house-made condiment, then you are missing out. The blend of flavors from their crunchy, hearty, strongly potato-flavored fries mixed with the sweet, spicy notes of their ketchup is truly a one-of-a-kind local treat. I defy any French fry lover to try these fries with their amazing ketchup and not fall in love.
For my final destination, I was given a great recommendation from my very astute editor, for a restaurant I had never tried. Boy was I missing out. The fresh-cut French fries ($4) at Big Grove Tavern were the best of the bunch. The ambiance is also top-notch; this place just has a great vibe. The motif is a blend of music memorabilia and a love letter to the city of Champaign. The restaurant is hip and elegant, without being pretentious. The main dining room is brightly lit by hanging string lights, which makes it feel like a European outdoor café housed indoors. The large bar and adjacent high top table area provides a great locale for happy hour gatherings and weekend outings, and they have separate larger rooms available for private parties, as well as a charming outdoor dining area. They offer a great selection of beverages to complement their menu.
The fry presentation was creative and stylish. The fries are served in wax paper tucked inside a metal cone, set upon a classy, rounded square China plate, and paired with steel ramekins of ketchup and malt vinegar aioli cleverly accented with a small piece of cut-up paper menu. The fries arrived extremely hot and fresh and were as delicious as they were visually appealing. They had been generously sprinkled with flakes of sea salt and freshly chopped herbs. I simply could not stop eating the perfectly prepared, golden brown fries. The sea salt added a hint of texture and the herbs lent a slightly complex component, which expertly complimented the fresh, delicate potato flavor of the fries. I plan to return on my next trip downtown; the fresh-cut French fries were absolutely perfect.
Meatheads is located at 1305 South Neil Street, Champaign, and open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Murphy’s Pub is located at 604 East Green Street, Champaign and open daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Farren’s is located at 308 North Randolph Street, Champaign, and open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.
Dancing Dog Eatery & Juicery is located at 126 West Main Street, Urbana, and open Tuesday and Sunday (brunch only), 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Monday, and Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Big Grove Tavern is located at 1 East Main Street, Champaign, and open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.