I’ve lived in Champaign-Urbana for a decade, and I’ve been the Food & Drink editor at Smile Politely since 2013. In the course of that time, the dining scene has changed dramatically. I’ve seen restaurants and food trucks open and close, relocate, and change names. I’ve had delicious food in incredible settings with wonderful service, I’ve been served organic waste by people having terrible days, and plenty in between. Even with so many changes, the food and drink scene in C-U is solid. Sure, there are restaurants we wish were still around, and some cuisines we wish we could enjoy. Do we want more bars? Probably not, but I suppose you’ll find the outlier who says, “Yes! We do not have enough drinking establishments here!” We should be proud of the development and success of new restaurants and bars, and continue to support them for the next ten years.
Seeing how the food and drink scene has evolved over the last decade has been a bit of a rollercoaster, which is to say, there have been highs and lows and at the end of it, I’m glad I had an opportunity to experience it.
— Jessica Hammie, Food & Drink editor
BEST Food Development: Better quality, more diverse restaurants
Over the course of ten years, Champaign and Urbana have seen a boom in restaurants. We have more, for sure, but I’d argue we also have better restaurants. Better is subjective, sure, but for me better means more variety, more diversity, and higher, more consistent quality. Even though we can’t seem to keep a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant, we do have plenty of options for experiencing cuisines from around the world. We have a whole bunch of Chinese and Korean restaurants, Caribbean food, more than one place for ramen, more than a few places for burgers, Mexican food, new Indian restaurants, coffee shops, popsicle bicycles, coffee bicycles, barbecue, fried chicken, fancy Italian, casual poke, and plenty of baked goods.
It’s been wonderful to see and support our local food industry grow, develop, and evolve. It’s the core of any interesting and robust city. (JH)
Photo credit from left to right: Jessica Wolff, Veronica Mullen, Anna Longworth
BEST Short-lived Restaurant: Carmon’s
In the earlier portion of the decade, Carmon’s Bistro existed. But if you blinked, you might’ve missed it — it was only open for about a year. But when it did exist, it was really something.
The new installment of Carmon’s kept the same name as the previous greasy-spoon diner before it. And though I can’t confirm this with certainty, I believe they kept the name of the restaurant because of the amazing neon signed that faced Washington Street. The new Carmon’s was much different than the old one that shared the name, though. This French bistro-style restaurant had a ton of delicious offerings, mixed with an approachable atmosphere, a lovely bar, friendly staff, and solid price point to boot. The restaurant didn’t last very long for reasons most people won’t ever know because of the intricacies of the relationships that were managing it. As we focus on the best food and drink of the decade, it is important to understand the delicate balance needed to make a restaurant work comprehensively.
There was a ton packed into that blip of a calendar year. It felt like it was around for much longer than it was, while simultaneously feeling short-lived. You can see some of the initial menu offerings here in our review, but they did all sorts of things within that year, from pop-up dinners with excellent fried chicken-shack themes, to live music on their patio and more. With a menu that had a few iterations, their delivery was just superb, and the restaurant’s closure has left a void that really hasn’t been filled in C-U since. There was just a really special warmth about the place that isn’t easily replicated, but when you notice elements of it elsewhere, you remember what it was like for even a brief moment, and miss it just a little bit more. (PS)
Photo by Justine Bursoni
BEST New Coffee Shop: Avionics/Page Roasting Company
Look, when you roast the beans in house, and your sole intention each day is to pour coffee with expertise and love, you are probably going to be acknowledged in this way. A truly amazing partnership between Erin Erdman of Page Roasting and Josh Lucas of Flying Machine Avionics, the still relatively new spot on First and Chester in Midtown Champaign is sort of the epitome of what still makes this place the sort of city you wanna live in.
Ask Erin about what she’s roasting, she’s there almost all the time, obsessively dressed in all black, and friendly without being cloying. Josh isn’t quite as talkative, but will gladly field your questions about the nature of God if you really want to know.
The music playing is always rad. The bottles of water are sealed tight, and so appealing, the aroma of the place is intoxicating, because they are literally roasting the coffee you are drinking. (SF)
Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST Brewery: Triptych
This decade has seen the rise of craft breweries nationwide, as well as right here in C-U, and while there are quality brews to be had at all of them, we feel like Triptych is deserving of the BEST brewery honor here. On their “About” page, you can find the following statement: “And while we don't believe that EVERY Triptych beer will be for everyone, we hope that there is A Triptych beer for everyone.” This is absolutely true. Triptych churns out seemingly endless varieties of beer, some stalwart and straightforward such as Dank Meme, Pretty Nice Little Saturday, or No Big Deal. They are also consistently experimenting with flavor combinations and collaborating with other breweries to offer unique options: Right now they have a candy cane milkshake IPA on tap, as well as pickle-inspired sour collaboration with The Blind Pig.
Over the past couple of years they’ve added #TheMemery, which now houses the brewing process, across the street from the taproom, making room for a complete reno of the original space. They’ve doubled the seating both inside and on the patio, and added a dart board and a shuffleboard table (which is awesome and something you can’t really find many places). They’ve always allowed you to bring food in, but their Savoy location isn’t teeming with nearby options. Thankfully, they now have several food trucks that rotate their presence at the brewery.
The space is generally kid-friendly (yes, we are those parents that bring our kids to a brewery), the patio is dog-friendly, and it has become a regular “we don’t have a ton of time for a date, but let’s sneak away and play Yahtzee and grab a flight” destination, as well as a place where my home brewer spouse can talk shop. Cheers to the next ten years. (JM)
Photo by Anna Longworth
BEST Food Truck: Caribbean Grill
You would be hard pressed to find a more controversial topic in the food service industry in town than the proliferation of food trucks over the past decade. But let’s just shelve that argument for now and sit down on the floor as you read this to pay respect and supplicate ourselves to Mike Harden and his family and team for starting and maintaining Carribean Grill.
Now more brick and mortar than food truck, this restaurant actually serves perfect food. I mean, it is rare when nothing is bad coming out of any kitchen, and this is the case at this joint. It’s spicy but doesn’t have to be if you order right. The flavors are enormous. The prices are right.
There are many wonderful trucks that we love in this community, too many to list here. But we all agree that Carribean Grill was the very best to open this past decade. (SF)
Photo from Caribbean Grill's Facebook page
BEST Place to Eat Until You Want to Die: Golden Harbor
Golden Harbor makes several appearances in our BEST of the decade round ups (spoilers, sorry!). It’s for good reason. The Chinese food restaurant serves very delicious food, but it also provides a very specific and unique dining experience. Because everything is served family style, it’s easy to over order and have too much food. Dishes arrive to the table as they are ready, which makes the entire experience like something from Harry Potter, where food is magicked to the table. Then the table becomes increasingly crowded with platters of food (mostly on a lazy Susan, but there is always overflow) and the only way to make more space is to keep eating. My S.O.P. at Golden Harbor is to have each diner pick one dish they want and then we all share it. This is a noble endeavor, because inevitably someone will say, “Oh wait! We need dumplings, too!” or “Should we also get taro buns?” The answer to these questions is always "Yes, duh." These are never included in the one dish per person rule, and so alas, there is too much food. The variety is what really does you in, though. Since there are a whole bunch of different foods on the table, your need to try everything is strong. But the need quickly spirals, and you no longer need to try everything, you need to eat everything. If you’re doing it right, there’s discomfort to be had after dinner at Golden Harbor, but like all masochists, you enjoy it. (JH)
Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST Moves: Art Mart + Farren’s + Papa Del’s
We’re certain of a few things when it comes to operating this magazine: people care about eating and drinking, and people care about nostalgia in our community. When businesses (especially restaurants) move around, people’s ears perk up. Although we’re not a news organization, this is the type of breaking news that people focus on in a lot of ways.
When we’re talking about restaurants and businesses that have a long standing history in the community, you’re mixing in this element of nostalgia: The KAM’s story is a perfect example of this. When it comes to a decade of business closures and openings, movements and transformations, all three of these moves were for the better in a variety of ways in our estimation.
Farren’s announced they were moving earlier this year to the space previously occupied by Radio Maria (the closure of which was also big news). They opened a few months ago in the new location, which brings the amazing burger joint out of the hidden location into one of the most prominent in all of Downtown Champaign. They’ve been doin’ it for 20 years strong, and it goes to show that even when you have a reputation like this one, you have to continue to push forward and make good choices to sustain.
Papa Del’s consolidated their operation from two locations to one in 2016, taking over the building that has taken on many forms over the years and was seemingly doomed to host anything for any long period of time. Regardless of your stance surrounding their ‘za, the fact that there’s a business — let alone a restaurant — that can survive in that monster space is something to celebrate.
As for Art Mart, well, the business is 61 years old and moved to Prospect Avenue from Lincoln Square Mall in 2015. This was a radical shift in a lot of ways, and they found a great home in their new location. The new space is lovely and minimal, yet packed with a ton of items you might only find there. (PS)
Farren’s photo by Anna Longworth; Art Mart and Papa Del’s photos by Sam Logan
BEST Restaurant Glow-up: Red Herring
Filling a still very large void in our community, Red Herring continues to serve us well by dishing out the finest in vegan cuisine almost each and every day from their basement spot on Oregon and Matthews in Campustown. That they celebrated 50 years this past decade is truly something to marvel!
But the reason they are being recognized here is because of how well they’ve adapted and redefined the restaurant and how it operates over the past ten years. From weekly culturally inspired dinner specials, to pop-ups at The Rose Bowl, to their commitment to being a safe space for as many as they are able to accommodate, this is a renaissance in the making, and already truly magnificent. (SF)
Photo by Dominic Menichetti
BEST Bar Glow-up: Bentley’s
When Mike N Molly’s closed in 2016, Ashley Buerkett mourned it like the rest of us, but instead also got to work with her partner Eric Meyer on redefining Bentley’s from a dusty and sort of tired space, to a lively and active one, based in catering to people who love music and good company, but with better drinks than you might find at some different dives around town. When you hire a bartender named Fu with a reputation for being one of the very best by most everyone, you usually win the game.
Now at the end of 2019, the city of Champaign has itself a new player for a spot where you can almost always be assured that young people are hanging out and having a good time. And yes, the later you go, the more people arrive but that’s sort of endemic of the best bars anyhow, right? Happy Hour bars are great and all, but no one throws a party like the Last Call bars.
Fortunately for us and its owners, it’s full most of the night, too. (SF)
Photo from Bentley's Instagram page
BEST Time to go Shopping: Saturday morning at Urbana’s Market at the Square
You may recall that this was an entry in WORST 2017, and suffice to say that it went over about as well as a lead balloon. I will dismiss the idea that I am not funny, and the idea that people are too sensitive. Instead, I choose to believe that no one actually read the entry, but instead just looked at the header and cried fowl. (Get it? The market logo is a rooster! Told you I’m funny.)
Allow me to be clear here: Urbana’s Market at the Square and Common Ground Food Coop are awesome. Saturday mornings in the summer are among the best times to go shopping, obviously. Look at the spread of goods we have available to us. The market gets better every year, and we’re truly lucky to have access to such amazing producers and vendors.
And since I have your attention, I kindly ask that you (re-)read my WORST entry from 2017 to see if your reading comprehension has improved in two years. (JH)
BEST Restaurateur: Jin Park
It should be clear to you by now that Jin Park is laser focused on making sure to find smart ways to elevate Champaign-Urbana’s dining scene. If you have not eaten at Sakanaya, NAYA, or Miga, I would suggest that you change that. Any response about the cost of the food will be met with a reminder that we are already talking about a luxury simply because dining out in any way is just that.
It’s not just that all three restaurants serve amazing food; that much is apparent by the size of the crowds the restaurants attract and by just tasting it to see. It’s the attention to aesthetics and bar program and dessert and restrooms and any other detail that goes into providing a customer with a unique and hospitable experience.
The materials used are always sturdy and simultaneously beautiful. The design is clean, and just challenging enough to be memorable. You know you are there, because it’s only there.
Beyond that, and this is the kicker: these restaurants are fun to go to. You always have fun there, because it’s been designed to make you feel happy to be there. It’s fun unless you are going through a break up or just failed your class. Of course you failed your class: you didn’t go and didn’t do the homework! That’s what happens.
I digress: Jin Park is the best new restaurateur of the decade, and rightfully so. (SF)
Photo from Park's Instagram
BEST Beer Garden: Mike N Molly’s
Mike N Molly’s will forever hold a place in my heart for a variety of reasons: the type of bar it was, the constant stream of live music it hosted, the fact that you could sneak into last call right before 2 a.m. and get to hang around a bit after the doors were technically locked, or the staff and patrons that made the place feel a particular way.
One of the most recognizable gems of the entire place was the magnificent beer garden. Aside from the countless number of shows I’ve seen out there summer after summer, it was, after all, a place to hang out and drink and socialize with one another. And just when we didn’t think it could get any better, Langston Allston painted a magnificent mural of Chef Ra (read about his work here while you’re at it) on the south wall, facing opposite of the north wall which was always covered in beautiful vines most of the year. The beer garden at MNMs just felt like a cozy pocket in Downtown Champaign that acted as a familiar space for just about anyone patronizing the bar.
Even though the bar closed a few years back, the space remains in a particular way, which is great, but it certainly has been crafted into something different from what it once was. Times change, but the memories of the space remain for those who spent time there. (PS)
Photo courtesy of Mike Murphy
This article was compiled by Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.