Here we are, another year older and wiser, and ready to celebrate all the BEST that has happened and is happening with food and drink culture in C-U. There have been openings and closures, great dishes and terrible ones, brunch-beverage controversies, and subsequent appeasement of patrons. And although things change and yet seem to remain the same, one thing is clear: There are plenty of awesome things happening in and around C-U as it relates to filling your belly with tasty goods.
We’ve put together a list of things (in no particular order) we like and want to celebrate, at least right now. You’ll disagree with some, I’m sure, and I’m sure that we’ve overlooked something, too. Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments. Happy eating and drinking.
BEST comfy chairs
There’s nothing worse than going out for a lovely meal, and losing feeling in your butt or your legs or your back because the chair you’re sitting in is awful. Miga’s chairs are plush and large enough to accommodate wider glutes, thus making the sitting experience lovely. Sure, they could be a little higher, especially for short folks who end up with the table closer to chest-height, but this is a small price to pay for comfort, no? (JH)
BEST marketing campaign that hasn’t happened
BBQ Row; Downtown Urbana
This would have been a lot better a few weeks back when Lacy’s was still open, but given the size of Urbana and the number of BBQ joints in a straight line, I will still give it some ink. Yes, Urbana, it’s time to own your place in the annals of BBQ glory. Black Dog alone is now a nationally celebrated restaurant, appearing on lists left and right, even if some of them are click-bait aggregator sites intended to get you to put your mouse over the photo of the 80-year old man with muscles like a stud in college, or the 13 women who used to be hot, and look what happened now?
Yes. Black Dog. Lil’ Porgy’s. Po’ Boys. Hickory River. All of them have something to offer, and all of them serve BBQ, and well, marketing is a funny thing. The more you talk about something, and the more you start painting a particular picture, the more people start to celebrate what you are pushing if it holds up. And this holds up. If I am Urbana, I am doing BBQ crawls twice a year, and getting all four joints to come together for some sort of biannual celebration of what they are smoking out back. (SF)
I have no data to back up this claim, but based on the crowds I see in and parked at Art Mart, I have reason to believe that the move to Champaign was a smart one for the business. I could count on my hands the times I ventured to Lincoln Square Mall to visit the store last year, and now I can count on my hands the times I visited Art Mart last month. Surely I'm not the only one. (JH)
BEST new place to take a date
To number one with a damned bullet. This is a true Italian joint in a sea of red sauce Italian-American joints that don’t really satisfy in the same way. Dario Vullo and his team in Downtown Champaign have crafted what very well might be one of the best restaurants to open in town, ever, in my opinion. Yes yes yes — we get it. It’s expensive. But real food, prepared by talented kitchens, costs money to execute. You are paying for that.
It’s not an everyday sort of joint. It’s a special occasion place, and like bacaro, and Timpone’s, should be categorized in the best of the best when it comes to execution and precision.
I’ve been coupled a long while now, and dates are different now than they are when you are first falling in love. But let me tell you, even having been with my wife for a while, there’s something super romantic about a table for two, with a bottle of red, and a plate of pasta, prepared perfectly, on site. (SF)
BEST improved food photography
Yes, this is sort of a backhanded compliment, but hear me out. In the past, Pekara has posted photos on social media that looked like this:
Blurry. Out of focus. Not exactly appetizing. Pretty terrible.
But recently Pekara has been posting photos to social media that look like this:
Much improved! In focus! A truer representation of the deliciousness the bakery and bistro offers. So, props to Pekara for improving. (JH)
BEST potential collaboration
Taste of C-U and Craft Beer Festivals
How do you improve an event that doesn’t ever live up to its potential? You add booze! The more they drink, the more they spend, the less they complain? I’m not sure. Taste of C-U has been steadily improving over the last three years, which has been fantastic. Last year’s inaugural Craft Beer Festival drew a large crowd and was well received by many, myself included. It only seems right to merge the two, and bring in a larger, more diverse crowd of attendees. (JH)
BEST new food event
Urbana Food Truck Rally
I feel like the slogan for this event should be, “Because sometimes you just want to know where your food truck will be without searching the Internet.” I think the Urbana Food Truck Rally is super brilliant, because I’m one of those people who doesn’t want to have to remember that my favorite food truck is parked in Champaign on Monday, Urbana on Tuesday, and a hotel on Wednesday. The Urbana Food Truck Rally is the last Tuesday of the month. Admittedly, this is also difficult for me to remember, but I can at least put it on my calendar well in advance. The food truck line-up rotates each month, so there’s an opportunity to sample different food trucks and their foods. (JH)
BEST social media presence
You’re right; Golden Harbor was awarded this prestigious title last year, too. But since it’s the truth, I thought that I should gently remind you again this year:
And don’t forget how delicious the food is, too. (JH)
BEST new bar we didn't know we needed
When it comes to watering holes in Downtown Champaign, there are plenty of course — though with the addition of Barrelhouse 34 earlier this year, the concept was a bit more than simply a place to get craft brews. Spot on decor, good cocktails, a wide selection of craft beers, and a super dope back patio and rooftop patio — it is a welcomed addition to the landscape. (PS)
BEST outdoor hang for a beer
What do you do when the downtown building you bought is basically crumbling and in total disrepair? Tear that fucker down, and make it into an outdoor beer garden, let graffiti artists adopt it as their own, and have the some of best industrial designers in town help fashion something out of nothing.
Serving up Triptych beers primarily, Sipyard is the dopest spot to open up in Urbana in years. The place just has a cache that just can't be denied. Good weather is key, but considering the fact that a different owner might've left that decaying building to rot for decades to come, a tip of the cap to Matthew Cho and his partners, Carl Catedral and Jarvis Kim, for creating something truly unique for all of us to enjoy. (SF)
BEST place for a picnic
Crystal Lake Park
Since I grew up in Urbana, I am biased, but let me just say how much I enjoy Crystal Lake Park. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon with family and friends or by yourself, wondering aloud as you walk over the little lake, “Am I really still alive? Is this the world that I thought it would be? Or is it just the edibles talking?”
No matter your state of mind, or what you plan on getting into on any particular day, Crystal Lake Park is where I go to set up a little picnic and have lunch before a day at Anita Purves Nature Center, or a walk through Busey Woods.
And yes, there is a staircase that some people in town consider to be a “secret.” I guess it’s a secret if you are new to town or a transient, but it’s classic to us townie folk who might’ve shared a moment with a special someone there once upon a time. That wasn’t me though. I just thought it was a cool staircase. (SF) Photo by Michael Kehoe.
BEST way to burn your mouth
Ghost Habanero and Hot Georgia Peach BBQ sauces
I’m super into these two barbeque sauces, and order both when eating at Black Dog, regardless of my meat selection. In fact, I sometimes put them on the sides, too. It seems a little excessive, but I don’t care. Both sauces are well-balanced, and not straight heat to the face. The Hot Georgia Peach is a little sweet and tangy, and is just super delicious. The Ghost Habanero is spicier, and certainly not for some, but it’s just so, so good, that I can’t help repeatedly dipping things into it. The nachos? Drizzle that sauce on top, and then dip those chips in like salsa. Amazing. Black Dog serves sauces warm, and the double heat really is the BEST way to burn your mouth. (JH)
BEST way to cool off on the go
Pop Stop, Inc.
Thus far, this late spring/early summer has been super hot and nasty. Attending the markets can be a challenge in this heat, but we’re lucky that The Pop Stop, Inc. is at both markets with a cooler full of delicious popsicles to help curb the discomfort. With fruity flavors like strawberry and watermelon, and slightly more indulgent flavors like fudgesicle and cookies and cream, there’s a flavor for everyone. The pops are super delicious and just enough of a sweet treat to make you forget about how you’re being baked or boiled or steamed alive. Pop Stop is almost always at the Tuesday and Saturday markets, as well as just about every event around town (Uncork Urbana, most recently). You can find out where the popsicles will be through Facebook. (JH)
A good dumpling should be exactly what they serve at San Maru. Steamed or fried, they should be big, and they should be filled with a tasty mix of ingredients, and they should be handmade. That is exactly what they are serving up out at the Crossing at this new Korean joint that has about 25 seats, and huge ambitions. Served in orders of 5 for $5.95, there are three kinds from which to choose: Veggie, Meat, and Kimchi. Both Meat and Kimchi feature pork, whereas Veggie has a mix of tofu, eggs, mushrooms, and more.
These are better than anything I’ve had outside of Golden Harbor, whose Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) are absolutely stunning as well. But we can’t very well just give Golden Harbor every accolade, all of the time, can we? No, we can’t. And that is because even Sophie at Golden Harbor would eat these dumplings and be all like “Damn! These are some good ass dumplings, yo!” (SF)
BEST spot off the beaten path
Rick’s is pretty much my new favorite place, and because it’s off the beaten path, I don’t get there often enough. I’m a super fan of the tres leches cake. You should make a point of eating that. Everything else is very good, too, especially the coconut macaroons. There are a couple of tables inside the little café, so you can sit down and enjoy the yumminess that drew you to Urbana. Or, you can catch Rick's on Saturday morning at Urbana's Market at the Square (usually booth 120). (JH)
BEST trend to make it to C-U
Adult slushies at Watson’s
Watson’s could be BEST in several of our invented categories: BEST fried chicken? BEST reno of a space? BEST way to consume fried food? BEST new cocktail menu? BEST new restaurant? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
Ultimately, we settled on highlighting the adult slushies because they are awesome, trendy, and the perfect accompaniment to fried chicken, rich and creamy sides, and a good time. They are super delicious, will get you buzzed, and also a lovely way to cool down on a hot day or after downing a Nashville Hot. This one was topped with a maraschino cherry, and who doesn’t love that?
BREAKING NEWS: Watson's is now serving slushie flights!
BEST salad that eats like a meal
Lemon Garlic Greens at The Bread Company on Goodwin
Oh, salad, you little tease. You always sit atop the menu, asking me to consider you as a starter, asking me to consider my heart, and my waistline. You stand there, looking at me like a bastard, asking me to do things that I am not really equipped to do. Look below ferchrissakes! There is a menu filled with things that are generally way more fulfilling and satisfactory!
But here you are, in front of me. Lemon Garlic Greens. A mélange of lettuces, freshly squeezed lemon, capers, cherry tomatoes, croutons, and freshly grated Parmigianino. You fill me up so well, my friend. You are a meal. And you are worth celebrating. (SF)
BEST place to have a steak
I can’t pretend here and write that Alexander’s has the best cuts of meat in town. They don’t. It’s all Choice cuts, and there are places in town (like bacaro) that get in Prime cuts on the regular, and as such, calling this the best steak would be inaccurate. Accordingly, I’ve called it the best place to have a steak, because it’s true.
If you can get over the big weird Chief photo on the wall, where his toes are basically at eye level while you dine (if you are lucky enough to be seated there), and if you go in with the idea that what you want is a large steak, with large pieces of toast, a large potato, and the largest Long Island Iced Tea you’ve ever had, then you are in for a treat.
Cook your own, sure — or let Eddie the Chef (who has been manning the grill for almost thirty goddamned years) cook it as you wish. But just get it “Eddie-style” which is a thing, and that means lots of butter, garlic, and Santa Maria seasoning all over your cut. It’s the best thing you can do sometimes, living here in the heartland. (SF)
BEST neighborhood bar I don't go to often enough
Admittedly, I live on the other side of town, and I don’t go out enough these days to justify a hang, and frankly, Poppa doesn’t drink and drive — EVER — and an Uber from there to here is a pricey one, so Boomerang’s, for me, is sort of a tall order. But for those of you who live in east Urbana, give this place a try, you hear?
It’s got most anything you’d want in a neighborhood bar. Good people, sick drink specials, Friday fish fry, solid rock music, and a menu that tips its hat to former C-U residents that have gone on to bigger and better (and sometimes worse) things. The Grassmans run a tight ship, and do everything by hand. That’s the sort of salt-of-the-earth folks they are.
And no, do not go into the Silver Bullet afterwards. No, it’s not a good idea. I do not care what your college roommate is telling you right now. Believe me, it’s a mistake. Stick inside of Boomerang’s and it will work out much better for you and your family. (SF) Image from Facebook.
BEST Part of town to get pizza
Krannert Center District
No one ever probably thinks of the Krannert Center District, in east Campustown in Urbana as a pizza district, but a closer examination tells us that it’s exactly that. Nothing against Papa Del’s, or Old Orchard or Pizza Antica (which I’d classify as the best pizza in town, based on the wood-fired ovens, and incredible dough). They are all delish in their own right, but the small block of Goodwin to Gregory Place is chock full of choices when it comes to this classic food. In no particular order, going clockwise. Check it:
Manolo’s: Far and away the best option for a slice in these fair cities, Manolo’s is looking at ten years of doing NYC-style pizza (and empanadas) the right way. I recommend the Spotted Goat slice for basically a perfect triangle of carbs and happiness.
Rosati’s: Despite the fact that this joint doesn’t really have a “style” (is it Chicago-style? NYC-style?) it’s a damn good slice of ‘za. Manager Shane Morrison is about the kindest dude you will ever meet, donating pie after pie to local events and charity functions, and it’s always a welcomed sight. The pizzas are doughy, and tangy, and basically hit the spot. I recommend the sausage slice for a greasy, but delectable piece of bliss.
Timpone’s: The original Campustown pizza, and carrying on the tradition that its sister joint, The Jolly Roger, left behind, there’s arguably no better “personal pizza” in town. Sliced into Midwest-style thin strips, this is a gourmet pizza in a gourmet restaurant without the gourmet prices. I recommend the Mushroom pizza with Italian sausage, caramelized onions, gorgonzola, and oregano. Bonus: Monday - Thursday between 8 and 9 p.m., you can get any pizza and a domestic beer for just $10. That’s bananas.
The Bread Company: Known for its fondue, and well, Swiss breads, you’d be hard pressed to find a more delicious pizza here in Champaign-Urbana, or anywhere, for that matter. Chefs Thomas Almeida and Al Dragas have taken the restaurant's legacy and brought it further along with creative thin crust pizzas. While I am usually a classic pizza sort of dude, I recommend the pancetta with button mushrooms, red onion, raclette, and artichoke. It’s super baller. (SF)
BEST New Grocer
Asian Supermarket on Prospect
The proliferation of Asian supermarkets around here should come as no surprise. The University has opened the floodgates for our neighbors to the east to come and study and live and establish themselves here in the middle of the middle of the Midwest. And for this, I cannot be anymore thankful.
The former Piccadilly on Prospect (which has been preserved as a sliver of what it once was) is now just “Asian Supermarket” and let me tell you, it is a goddamned goldmine. Yes, it has all of the everythings that you want from an Asian supermarket, no question about it. But keep walking back, and to the right, and you will see fish tanks filled with live lobsters, Dungeness crabs, tilapia, and more. Depending on when the deliveries come in, on the ground in front of them, sits fresh clams, mussels, oysters, and more. It’s like living in New York City, except, not really at all. There’s plentiful parking in front, and this is Prospect Ave., not Chrystie in Chinatown. You were just on mushrooms. It’s OK. You are still in Champaign. (SF)
BEST mashed potatoes and gravy
All due respect to Shades and Watson’s, but Apple Dumplin’s mashed potatoes and gravy still win the award for best mashies and gravies. Why? I think it’s just because of how basic they are, which is sort of what I am looking for when I choose to devastate myself and my night with a helping of this particular dish. Generally speaking, I am going straight to bed after a trip to Apple Dumplin’ and that is because of the gravy, which is a basic white, with black pepper, on top of fluffy russetts that have been blended with cream and butter.
I’d say that Watson’s has the BEST sides in town now, but the award for BEST mashed potatoes remains on Highcross Rd. with the yokels and visitors that make the place a unique gem in this part of the State. I love it. (SF)
BEST use of local ingredients
You, a C-U community member
We’re incredibly lucky to have two farmers’ markets in C-U. The Land Connection’s Tuesday market in Downtown Champaign is now in it’s second season, and it’s continuing to get better and better in terms of vendors and patron attendance. And Urbana’s Market at the Square? It’s been running continuously for one bazillion years (literally), and there are so many choices for local ingredients that one can become paralyzed by indecision. Have you visited after 10 a.m.? It’s packed. One thing is consistent at both Champaign’s and Urbana’s markets: we are buying up the produce and other locally made items. It’s awesome. Still unconvinced? What about the plethora of local CSAs? We have so many that there is a CSA fair in December so that you can make an informed decision about which CSA(s) to sign up for. I have no doubt that you’re all munching on delicious local produce.
Local restaurants are on board with shopping locally, too. You can find locally grown food and on the menus at bacaro, Big Grove Tavern, Cracked Truck, V. Picasso, and Watson’s, among others. Locally brewed beer? Like we even need to remind you about Blind Pig, Destihl, JT Walker’s, and Triptych. The local restaurants and bars with those brews on tap are too many to name.
So give yourself a pat on the back for supporting local producers, and continue to enjoy making the BEST use of local ingredients. (JH)
BEST restaurant renovation
After bacaro changed hands last year, Chef Drew Starkey and his team decided that rather than changing names, the better idea would be to simply change the look of the place. And they did a marvelous job. New floors, a new paint job, new fixtures, new everything — except the quality, which remains as consistent and marvelous as it has ever been.
The old bacaro was fantastic, but this update reflects some of the differences between the former and the current, in a way that is subtle enough to not mess with a good thing, but to give a nod to fresh ideas from perhaps the most talented chef in town.
Do yourself a favor and head on in for dinner, and have a look around. It's nice to see that folks around here take aesthetics seriously, and that there's value in treating your customers to a full experience, and not just what is served to you on a plate. (SF)
Editor's Note: a previous version of this article incorrectly identified Derick Aikman as the chef of Bread Company on Goodwin. Aikman is the owner of the restaurant; Thomas Almeida and Al Dragas are the head chefs.
Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie and Patrick Singer contributed to this article. Photos by Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Sam Logan, and Patrick Singer.