Whether you’ve been to Hamilton Walker’s or not, I’d almost bet you have an impression of it. Their oversized, marquee-style sign in red and gold pops out of the restaurant’s gray edifice on the west side of Neil Street in Downtown Champaign. Their 1940s theme is carried out inside with cozy but opulent booths, sleek wood tables, art deco flourishes, and art depicting folks reminiscent of the early era of Hollywood living high on the hog.

While being a themed steakhouse remains Hamilton Walker’s main thing, General Manager Nathan Escue had some insight to share with Smile Politely about what rounds them out and why now might be a good time to give them a visit, whether in person or for carryout.

Smile Politely: Could you tell us a little bit about your position at Hamilton Walker’s?

Nathan Escue: I oversee the operations and report to the investment team of our progress. In overseeing Hamilton Walker’s, I make it my goal to strengthen and enhance the three pillars I believe represent the restaurant: quality of food and beverage, quality of service, and ambiance. Providing an exemplary and memorable dining experience brings me joy within this line of work. Food and beverage, I believe, brings people together and provides a way to celebrate life.

SP: What’s your favorite thing to order on the menu right now?

Escue: Such a hard question to answer. I love our steak. A rich, juicy, well-marbled ribeye is my go to. And I believe the source of where we procure our beef (from farms in Iowa, humanely raised) is what's so special about our cuts. However, the transitions we’ve made in the past few months with our comfort plates truly have my taste buds watering. Chef’s schnitzel with a triple mustard cream sauce is out of this world, or the penne seafood served with grilled bread to sop up all of the delicious sauce.

Penne pasta is topped with a slightly golden, glossy spiced tomato butter sauce, which pools at the bottom of the dish white pasta bowl. A combination of flaked crab, salmon, and a few whole shrimp are scattered throughout. It is garnished with parsley flakes. Three thin, bias-cut slices of lightly grilled baguette are laid, overlapping, across the top of the dish. Photo by Hamilton Walker’s.Penne seafood. Photo by Hamilton Walker’s.

SP: What’s most popular among HW customers?

Escue: Our most requested item at Hamilton Walker’s is our center cut filet mignon. Once again, the source of where we procure our beef is what is so special about this steak. This popular cut is extremely lean and tender and offers a delicious but subtle beefy flavor.

SP: What’s a day like for you working at HW?

Escue: I like to get to the restaurant well before we are open for business. This allows me the time needed to work on administrative responsibilities that go into running a business. Once the restaurant opens, I love spending time with the guests. Conversing and building rapport and sharing my gratitude for their patronage really brings me joy. Providing and ensuring our guests are having a great time gives me drive to do it for others.

SP: After work, what do you like to do? Any hobbies?

Escue: Generally, after work concludes, it is near the end of the day. However, if it’s not too late, you won’t be surprised to see me at a downtown bar or restaurant. Just as I love to take care of guests at Hamilton Walker’s, I love to experience other food and beverage creations in other establishments.

Outside of work, I am certainly a family man. Looking forward to spending time with my amazing wife and two children helps me get through my week when it gets challenging.  Playing games and spending time outdoors fills a lot of our time when we are together. Additionally, living in Chicago for more than 15 years prior to moving to the area, catching as many Cubs and Bears games is a must.

SP: What’s your go-to drink?

Escue: This may be the toughest question to answer. It really depends on the setting. I love sipping on a dry crisp white wine outdoors on a patio. However, after a long day at work this might call for a cold IPA beer. But at other times, the perfect balance of a well-prepared mixed cocktail is where it’s at. Hamilton Walker’s house old fashioned is delicious. We use a demerara simple syrup that really gives an awesome mouth feel that traditional simple syrup doesn’t provide.

But then there’s red wine! In many instances, food should be enjoyed with wine. Over the years, my appreciation for wine has grown immensely. There are some really special bottles of wine that are made. Experiencing the layers of flavor, textures, intricacies, and how it changes from the first sip out of the bottle to the last is really a treat I enjoy.

A thick-bottomed rocks glass sits on a dark wood table. In the background is the diamond tufted pattern of the black leather booth at which the drink is served. The drink is ¾ full of large, clear ice cubes and a bourbon cocktail. A red Hamilton Walker’s swizzle stick and an orange peel twisted around a cherry, both speared on a bamboo toothpick, accent the drink. Photo by Hamilton Walker’s.Photo by Hamilton Walker’s.

SP: Reflecting a bit about your four years in Downtown, what have been some standout moments, lessons learned, or things you’ve come to appreciate most?

Escue: This year during our shutdown, when an individual contacted me and said he wanted to donate his stimulus check to Hamilton Walker’s to provide assistance for our community, that was jaw dropping. The act of this person and the ability to feed over 1,200 people in just a few hours was extremely rewarding and humbling. Through the four years of being Downtown, the support of our community has been huge.

Downtown Champaign is a really special place. The food and beverage options are diverse, plentiful, and at certain times of the year are buzzing with energy. I’ve learned over this time that there is no room for complacency — especially this year. Being creative and standing up to what we believe we are doing has shown to be a success. Hamilton Walker’s is first and foremost a steakhouse. However, moments of our dinners, Sunday brunch, among others really stand out.

SP: It’s neat that you have an introductory video on your website. It’s less than a minute long, but it helps give potential diners an idea of what you’re all about. If you were to make a second minute-long video, what would it focus on?

Escue: I think in the second video, I would want to capture that Hamilton Walker’s isn’t just a special occasion type of restaurant. Being a scratch kitchen and having employed educated team members on food and beverage can provide a really approachable dining experience. The expansion of our comfort plates also helps provide this. Steak will definitely be at the forefront, however the satisfying meatloaf, steakburger, fish and chips, and schnitzel might be for the more regular return.

SP: Hamilton Walker’s is a bit of a concept joint (1940s-themed steakhouse). How, since your opening in 2016, have you seen customers embrace that vibe?

Escue: The amount of compliments we receive from our decor and music selection is quite numerous. I think it reminds a lot of people of another time — not only those who lived that era, but several that simply enjoy the look and feel of the 1940s.

SP: What is something people in C-U might not realize about Hamilton Walker’s but would be helpful for them to know?

Escue: The approachability of our restaurant should not intimidate people. We share a mentality that is welcoming of all and have a concern to provide food and beverage options that will suit all individuals; this ranges from steak to seafood, from comfort plates to a kid's menu, and don’t forget about Sunday brunch. Don’t be timid to try something new as we believe we have something for everyone.

SP: We’ve all been forced to flex our creative muscles lately; how would you say Hamilton Walker’s has done this to adapt to the current circumstances?

Escue: During the full closure we developed a butcher shop that was very successful. It’s definitely not what we want the restaurant to strictly look like, however it is still ongoing and is providing an additional way to offer Hamilton Walker’s products to those who aren’t ready to dine out or really want our proteins on their home grill.

A 14 oz. bone-in ribeye with diamond grill marks rests on a white plate, which in turn sits on a small white cloth atop a wooden table. A wood-handled, serrated steak knife lays across the top of the plate, and a sprig of fresh parsley is tucked under the steak as garnish. Photo by Hamilton Walker’s.14 ounce boneless ribeye. Photo by Hamilton Walker’s.

SP: Are there any changes you’ve adopted due to COVID-19 that you can see yourself carrying into the future?

Escue: Our butcher shop and our curbside takeout will continue for the foreseeable future.

SP: What are ways that customers can help keep your servers safe?

Escue: Wear a mask when you’re not at your table eating and drinking. It’s as simple as that.

SP: What would you like diners to be most aware of regarding how you’re addressing the situation?

Escue: We are taking the situation very seriously. We want to stay open and keep people safe. This means an extreme care and concern for our staff and patrons. We’re committed to the Champaign County Pledge. We have hand sanitizer in both front of house and back of house; we are using individual use food menus. Anything that a guest has touched is sanitized prior to another guest touching it, and we have installed HALO-LED in-duct air purification systems in all of the HVAC units.

SP: Could you give a recommendation for a no-expenses spared, multi-course dinner at HW for a big celebration?

Escue: This would be a Chef’s Table. We’d plan on a date and have a menu written specifically for you. This would happen through an interview with the guest and Chef Zach. These dinners have ranged from three courses to 15 courses. They can include beverage pairings or not. This type of dinner is a customizable experience that will leave you with a remarkable experience. We generally host these on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sundays for groups of two to ten.

SP: Do you have any dishes that normally aren’t associated with steakhouse dining that you think deserve a special mention?

Escue: Our comfort plates are just this. Chef will brag that his made-to-order meatloaf is his favorite dish. We are a steakhouse, however, we offer a variety of options to accommodate guests’ everyday desires.

A single-serving, made-to-order meatloaf is placed on a round, white plate. A layer of zesty sauce and a sprig of fresh parsley top the meatloaf, which itself partially sits on a bed of fresh garlic green beans, cooked tender crisp, and roasted red potatoes. Photo by Hamilton Walker’s. Meatloaf. Photo by Hamilton Walker’s.

SP: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Escue: I am truly grateful that my family and I are part of this community. The fun to share, the midwestern attitudes that display themselves, and the excitement and engagement of our UIUC sporting events are a few things that are so great about this area. Whether it’s to treat yourself to a big steak dinner or simply come in for a light bite and drink, Hamilton Walker’s will be here providing a dining experience dedicated to our deserving guests.

Hamilton Walker's
201 N Neil St
W + Th 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
F + Sa 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Top image by Hamilton Walker's.