Smile Politely

Tour de French Toast

French toast on a white plate with mango guava syrup.
Alyssa Buckley

National French Toast Day is tomorrow, November 28th, and no one should wake up uninformed about where to find local eggy toast. In 2018, Rob wrote two French toast lists (here and here), and I’ve been on the hunt lately for good French toast, so I can serve an updated round-up of the breakfast dish. What started as five toasts has grown to seven French toasts because I kept thinking of more places that offer it. In Champaign-Urbana, there’s no shortage of places to eat breakfast, and so, of course, C-U offers more French toasts than I’ve covered here. If I’m missing your favorite, write me about it or leave a comment on our socials.

From Maize Mexican Grill to The Literary Kitchen, here are seven orders of French toast.

Two slices of French toast at brunch at Maize Mexican Grill.
Alyssa Buckley

Maize’s Brunch French Toast

Maize at The Station serves brunch on the weekends, and at the Mexican restaurant one Sunday, I ordered the brunch French toast ($13). Two thick slices of toast were topped with warm guava maple syrup, powdered sugar, and fresh berries — and it was amazing. The syrup’s bright guava was so deliciously unexpected, and the addition of fruit purée gave the syrup a thicker consistency that easily glazed the blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. I loved the country white bread with its airy center and chewy outer crust. Saturated in an eggy dip, the fluffy bread started soft, and the gooey, chewy slices only got soggier as the sweet syrup pooling underneath saturated the toast.

As with all orders at Maize, this French toast came with a basket of free chips and a cup of salsa, a little different than diners.

Maize at The Station
100 N Chestnut St
M-F 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. brunch)
Su 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. brunch)

A slice of French toast bake at Martinelli's Market.
Alyssa Buckley

Martinelli’s Market’s French Toast Bake

Champaign’s downtown deli Martinelli’s Market offers breakfast everyday, and one morning with my friend Alice, I ordered the house-made French toast casserole ($5.95). Served warm in a paper basket with a side of maple syrup, this was a seriously eggy toast that made me happy. I loved the swirls of cinnamon in the soft bake bread just as much as that rich egg flavor. The syrup here was my favorite of this list, hands down; Martinelli’s Market served the good stuff, the real stuff with that caramel-y maple bang. I expected the top layer to be somewhat crunchy, but it was soft though a bit sweeter and slightly thicker in texture than the cake-y bottom. A straight-forward version of a French toast bake, it was quite yummy even without fruit, butter, or whipped topping.

Try this one at the Downtown Champaign quick-service restaurant beside Wood N’ Hog and Stango Cuisine on Walnut.

Martinelli’s Market 
500C North Market St
T-Sa 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Almond toasted cinnamon French toast at Original Pancake House in Champaign, Illinois.
Alyssa Buckley

Cinnamon Toasted Almond French Toast at The Original Pancake House

The menu at The Original Pancake House in Champaign offers lots of pancakes and only two French toasts: one with strawberries and this one. I ordered the cinnamon toasted almond French toast ($13), which had three slices with a top layer of almonds and cinnamon sugar, plus butter. I adored this French toast. As I cut the bread, I heard the crunch of hardened sugar, and when syrup was poured on top, the toast’s sugar crust dissolved, the sourdough absorbing all that sweetness. Because I like almonds, I thought the thinly sliced almonds were wonderful, adding a toasted nuttiness and slight crunch to the soft slices. These nuts are not unnoticeable; it’s an almond toast more than cinnamon for sure, and it’s so delicious.

The Original Pancake House of Champaign has sit-down breakfast down to a science; the place serves breakfast six days a week with an online wait list and unmatched coffee service.

The Original Pancake House
1909 West Springfield Ave
M-F 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Sa 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Gus' toast at Sam's Cafe
Alyssa Buckley

Gus’ famous French toast at Sam’s Cafe

No list about French toast in Champaign-Urbana would be complete without Gus’ famous French toast. In April, I wrote a love letter to the French toast at Sam’s Cafe, and also I put this carb plate in September’s Five things to eat. I’m sorry (not sorry) I love this toast so much. The slices had a soft center with a yummy cinnamon flavor. Unlike the other toasts, the battered bread had lacy edges crisped on the diner griddle. And that caramelized exterior was everything. That crispy, crunchy texture plus the dusting of powdered sugar made the toasts taste almost like funnel cake, and it was so delicious. This plate of French toast is seriously good every time, and even after trying other versions, I am still in love with this.

Gus’ famous French toast is available as a full order ($7.80) or a half order ($4.50), paid in dollar bills since Sam’s Cafe is cash only.

Sam’s Cafe
115 N Walnut Ave
M-F 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sa 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Su 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

A stack of fruit French toast at Sammy's Pancake House.
Alyssa Buckley

Sammy’s Pancake House’s Homestyle Cinnamon Stuffed Fresh Fruit Toast

Not to be confused with Sam, Sammy serves breakfast in Champaign, too. One weekday morning, I ordered the homestyle cinnamon stuffed fresh fruit French toast ($10.95). This had three slices of homestyle cinnamon French toast layered with cream cheese and sticky orange glaze that clung to fresh strawberries, blueberries, and banana, topped with whipped cream plus a little cup of syrup on the side. The smear of melty cream cheese between layers of warm cinnamon-swirled bread tasted super delicious like the frosting on cinnamon rolls. Topped with whipped cream and glazed fruit, the dish was very sweet, but I especially enjoyed the classic pairing of strawberries and cream with Sammy’s cinnamon-y toast. While the purple glaze was cloyingly sweet with subtle citrus flavor, the cream cheese and cinnamon flavors dominated, making for a tasty, cinnamon roll-esque stack.

Sammy’s Pancake House has the most French toast options (that I’ve seen in C-U). The menu boasts more stuffed toast, this same cinnamon French toast but not stuffed, Texas-style, and even more — all under $12.

Sammy’s Pancake House
1206 N Mattis Ave
6 a.m. to 3 p.m., daily 

Six half-slices of traditional French toast at Sweet Basil Cafe.
Alyssa Buckley

Sweet Basil Cafe’s Traditional French Toast

One morning, I went to Sweet Basil Cafe and ordered the traditional French toast ($12). The plate came with six half-toasts topped with powdered sugar, served with a squeeze bottle of table syrup. Though I appreciate a diagonal slice, the bread tasted quite plain, and it lacked that soggy or eggy texture I crave when ordering French toast. Each spongy bready bite needed syrup badly, and I think Sweet Basil’s toasts would be best with toppings. Perhaps I should’ve ordered the glazed French toast (toast with a choice of glaze: strawberry, blueberry, apple nut, raspberry, or blackberry served with fresh fruit) or the cinnamon version with cream cheese frosting and cinnamon butter. For a diner looking for French toast without too much going on, this is it.

Open seven days a week, the Champaign restaurant’s breakfast menu is available all day long every day.

Sweet Basil Café of Champaign
103 W. Marketview Drive
7 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily

French toast at The Literary Kitchen with miso butterscotch syrup, blueberries, mint, and a side of whipped butter.
Alyssa Buckley

Miso Butterscotch French Toast The Literary Kitchen

I snagged a window seat at The Literary one morning and ordered the miso butterscotch French toast ($16). Served with a side of whipped cream, the toast’s presentation was fancy. Chops of cool mint tasted great with fresh jumbo blueberries; that pairing of fresh herbs and juicy fruit just hit. And altogether with the rich bread and sweet-and-salty pecan clusters tasted delicious. With toasted edges, the slices of bread were dry — not as eggy as I would’ve liked — but went well with house-made miso butterscotch. That delicious syrup had a bold caramelized, burnt sugar flavor, and I devoured every last drop, wishing there was more of it.

Chopped fresh herbs are an unconventional way to garnish French toast, but the mint totally worked as a foil to the warm, decadent elements. This gorgeous toast is on the menu at the new café, now run in-house by the bookstore and bar. All the food is fast casual: order at the counter, receive a number, and someone brings food out. The utensils and napkins are self-serve beside the register.

The Literary Kitchen
122 N Neil St
W-Sa 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Su 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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