Before visiting a “sports bar” became synonymous with drinking at a high-strung chain restaurant like Buffalo Wild Wings, it probably meant patronizing a local venue like Champaign’s own Tumble Inn. Tumble Inn is an unassuming, quiet bar just east of Neil Street, several blocks South of the heart of the downtown area. Many of my friends have driven by Tumble Inn (or rumbled past it on CUMTD buses), but never had the chance to stop inside. There was ample parking available directly outside the bar on both of my visits (on a Tuesday and a Thursday evening) and good amount of space to relax inside as well.
The tavern also offers significant privacy for those looking for a more solitary evening. No one greets or approaches you when you enter, and I did not see employees move from behind the bar at any point. You are left to approach the bar to order and close your tab whenever, and can leave without anyone taking note, so the more casual environment might be a nice fit for a low-pressure date or a rendezvous with a secret paramour. Many patrons appeared alone and drank in solitude, which in my experience tends to happen less at peppier establishments where lone customers are more consistently hounded by wait staff.
When I approached the bar and asked if they sold any food, the bartender paused thoughtfully, then suggested I return on a night when the infamous Chester’s Barbecue truck camps out in the parking lot — most Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (when there’s not an out of town barbecue festival going on) according to the owner’s Facebook page. The bartender was friendly, and half-offered to “toss a frozen pizza in the oven” if I was “really hungry,” but I wasn’t sure if he was working off of any formal menu or just offering to do so as a personal favor to me. The bar was impressive and well-stocked, and most folks seemed to be there to drink, not eat. I too decided to skip the food and order some libations to fill my stomach instead.
I tried a Coors Light and an Amaretto Sour, both of which were cool and simple. The bartender was particularly liberal with the alcohol in my mixed drink, and this proved true for my entire party’s beverages. Others in my group ordered screwdrivers and Long Islands, all of which were generously made. The standard rule seemed to be to avoid watered down drinks by erring on the side of more alcohol, which is always a plus.
A few days later, I returned to Tumble Inn and asked a different bartender if they offered any house specials. He responded with forced glee: “everything here is special!” A few minutes later, a couple friends of mine meandered up to the bar and asked the same question. The bartender balked, visibly agitated: “listen, we have no specials here. We just have beer and normal drinks. Alright? Thank you.”
My guess is that, for one reason or another, our youthful energy irked the employee, so my second visit didn’t last as long as it could have. Perhaps because of Tumble Inn’s relative distance from Campustown, the bar is less used to seeing university students milling about. You will certainly appreciate the general atmosphere of Tumble Inn if avoiding a more raucous, younger crowd is a draw; out of the fifteen or so patrons scattered throughout the single-story building, every one seemed to be a local, middle-aged community member. But the bartender’s frustrations seemed unwarranted at best, and shifted my overall impression of Tumble Inn’s hospitality from ambivalent to unwelcoming.
I cannot see myself returning to Tumble Inn, especially when there are several higher-quality bars just down the street (unless it is to sample the Chester’s BBQ parked nearby). To paraphrase one of Tumble Inn’s cheerier employees, nothing is really “special” here. The bar offers neither the clever cocktails of competitors like Radio Maria, nor the theme nights or bustle of bars like the Blind Pig. If you are looking to try the newest IPAs, or sample hot wings and unique brews made with special care, head a couple miles north. But despite its quirks, Tumble Inn would probably be a nice place for an older patron to accumulate a slow, casual buzz while watching “the game” among smiling fans and strong drinks. One thing Tumble Inn seemed to be concerned with above all else was creating an environment in which just this could happen.
Tumble Inn is located at 302 S Neil Street, Champaign.
All photos by Scott Wells.