Smile Politely

WORST 2023

Three vertical photos on a black background: left image is a protest with women holding signs about abortion access; middle is an image of the entrance to the Kraft-Heinz factory, with a white sign that reads "Kraft Heinz"; right image is of a daycare center, with a mural of a mountain and forest on the wall, and children's toys and cubbies in the space.
L-R: Mary Catherine Roberson; Google Images; Patrick Singer

Another year is gone, and we have been celebrating the BEST of it. Now that those articles are published, we can turn our attention to the WORST of the year. Some of our complaints are similar to last year’s, but lucky for us there are new things we find disappointing, irritating, unacceptable, and foul (particularly those fumes from Kraft). What are the things that irked you most this year? Feel free to send us an email while we’re on publishing break; we’d love for nothing more than to return to work to a bunch of emails with complaints!

In all seriousness, we genuinely love living here (and we are grateful for your readership and emails). We just want the best for the people who call this place home. We want to invite new people in, show them all the cool stuff we have, and then complain and gossip about what we want and need to fix.


— Jessica Hammie, Editor-in-Chief 

Screenshot of Courier Cafe on Facebook post. Text reads "Coming soon! The Courier Cafe will introduce video gaming, done in a dignified fashion. Our anticipated go-live date is Tuesday, December 5th. You must be 21 years old to enter the private gaming area." Below the text is a photo of four video gambling/gaming stations with black chairs in front of them.
Screenshot / Courier Cafe on Facebook

WORST decision(s) by a restaurant: Courier Cafe adding video poker machines, then completely ignoring the backlash 

A couple of weeks ago, Courier Cafe announced on Facebook that they were going to “introduce video gaming, done in a dignified fashion.” I am going to set aside the “dignified fashion” thing because…I don’t even know what to do with that. Not surprisingly, people in the comments were not thrilled with this. After maybe a couple of hours of onslaught in the comments, they deleted the post. Of course, this did not stop people from sharing their displeasure on all of their other posts, which led to Courier turning off commenting altogether.

In what universe does bringing in gambling to a cozy little restaurant in a historic building make good sense? I’m not here to be the morality police on gambling, to be sure. There are plenty of places in this town to enjoy video gaming if that’s your thing. It’s just a bizarre decision.

I love Courier Cafe. It’s really the first C-U restaurant I became endeared to when I came to U of I. It was where I went with my parents when they came to visit. I love a cherry shake and sweet potato fries and their chicken salad on a croissant. They have free pie on Mondays! I do not wish for their demise. But if this is indicative of how things are going under its new ownership,  I can’t imagine how this turns out well for them. Those new owners told The News-Gazette that “They understand what The Courier Cafe and its vintage charm means to the community.” Last I checked, video gambling machines don’t really offer “vintage charm.” (JM)

A view of Lodgic's child care center. A mural of a mountain and trees is on the back wall. There are cubbies and tables and kids toys on shelves. A television is on the wall with the mural.
Patrick Singer

WORST loss for C-U parents: Drop-in childcare at Lodgic

Last winter, Lodgic announced the closure of their restaurant, Everyday Kitchen. While originally they said the daycare and workspace would continue to operate, in the spring, that turned out to not be possible and both closed. While the building now has new ownership (and a new restaurant is set to open), the daycare remains closed. Sure, there are plenty of daycares in C-U, and maybe even one or two with some form of drop-in, but none quite like Lodgic. I used it for an entire year when I taught for an hour at a time a few days a week and didn’t need full-time daycare; I used it when I had an unexpected meeting pop up and couldn’t find a babysitter with an hour’s notice; we used it to have a safe space for our kids when we closed on our house; we used it for date nights — often at Everyday Kitchen in the same building — and even for childcare during a wedding one time. If you don’t have family nearby, childcare is truly a challenge, and Lodgic filled a very real gap in childcare needs for many families. Hopefully someone will step up and reopen this critical space in the coming year. (SSO) 

The exterior of ImpactLife on University Avenue in Urbana.
Alyssa Buckley

WORST way to use a pint of blood: Keeping it in your body when C-U still has a blood shortage 

Science says you don’t need all that blood, okay? If you’re an individual who meets the (recently updated to be more inclusive) qualifications, I bet you’d barely even notice a missing pint of blood. Look, I hate needles and I really hate the whole process actually, but I hate the idea that there’s someone at Carle Hospital needing blood to literally live. Champaign has a blood shortage; Impact Life says, “Type O-positive, O-negative, and platelet donations from all blood types are especially needed at this time,” so give blood, please. (AB)

Exterior of Sammy's Pancake House restaurant on Mattis Avenue, Champaign, as viewed from the parking lot. It is a beige building with a blue awning.
Carl Busch

WORST menu change: Loss of potato pancakes at Sammy’s Pancake House

I love Sammy’s Pancake House. It’s the best breakfast in town, hands down.

I love going to Sammy’s on random weekdays. I start every birthday there. I love the predictability: I know Sammy is going to seat me, I know I will see the same waitresses and employees who have been there for years. I. Love. Sammy’s. Earlier this year, I went to order my usual, which includes a side of potato pancakes, and I was told that (gasp!) they are no longer offering them because not enough people order them. I was flabbergasted. The waitress apologized no fewer than five times (clearly I was distressed). I’ve continued to ask for them every time, but I’m always met with the same apology and response. It’s always a bummer when your favorite dish is discontinued, but this one really hurts. Not many places in town offer potato pancakes, and Sammy’s were definitely the best. Here’s hoping they make a return in the new year. (SSO)

Maize restaurant on Green Street is a small, oddly shaped red building with a black, low hanging roof. There is a sign that says "Maize" over the door.
Sam Logan

WORST way to preserve an old building: Knocking down Maize on Green 

The little shack at the corner of First and Green is where I had my first bite of Maize. I had an al pastor taco, and I weaseled my way into a seat at the teal tiled counter to eat it. My fingers stained orange from the saucy pork, and I was hooked. Before it was Maize, the building was Ye Olde Doughnuts. I know there are plans for Maize to move into the first floor of the new build, but it won’t be the same. And maybe it’ll be great, but I know knocking that unassuming spot is certainly the worst way to preserve an old building with a cool food history. (AB)

For lease sign in a large restaurant space in Downtown Champaign, as viewed from across the street. The space is the ground floor of a large building on a corner with huge windows.
Alyssa Buckley

WORST thing to look at in Downtown Champaign: Vacant spaces

Look, I know you’re just as bored reading this as I am writing this. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. While there are meaningful discussions to be had about infill and preservation versus new build, we can all agree that it’s depressing to see these beautiful, old buildings in need of tenants and lots of reno (The Art Theater), and new, often ugly / uninteresting buildings that need tenants and inspiration. These vacant spaces are symptoms of larger problems with rent control and opportunity and what is and isn’t being supported by both our communities and our cities. There are plenty of people in C-U with amazing ideas and know-how, and it would be incredible to see investment into these spaces to subsidize cool and interesting things. (JH)

View of Hendrick House Farm field, with green plants sprouting but not fully grown. The sky is a clear blue with a few clouds.
Alyssa Buckley

WORST loss of fresh Champaign-grown produce for our community: Hendrick House Farm

In 2022, Hendrick House Farm provided 15,000 pounds of fresh produce to Champaign-Urbana, but this year, Hendrick House permanently ended operations at the ten-acre farm in Champaign. That farm had five acres dedicated to vegetable production; between the land and greenhouses, Hendrick House’s Rising Road farm grew tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, radishes, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes, sweet corn, garlic, and more. When that suddenly closed, the cafeteria-style restaurant Betsy’s Bistro at The Fields closed as well, and those who signed up for HH Farm’s CSA were told they wouldn’t get any produce — and to email for a refund. Hendrick House Farm was around for more than a decade (though only five years at the ten-acres site), and now the Rising Road farm is producing no vegetables for the community. Its closure is the worst. (AB)

A plate of jerk chicken at Caribbean Grill, served with plantains and rice and peas.
Anna Longworth-Singer

WORST restaurant closure: Caribbean Grill’s close-out lunch 

Chef Mike Harden is a pro in the kitchen and an IG-star. His Champaign restaurant closed last summer with hopes of reopening, but in August he announced that the closure was permanent, with one final goodbye service. And it was exciting: people were lined up, customers were ready to order online when the menu dropped at noon, but then it was chaos. Online ordering opened early and sold out; some people waited in line for hours before being told everything was gone. That’s not the send off we wanted, and Champaign is clearly hungry for more of that delicious jerk chicken. I know I am. (AB)

Musician Matt Talbott performs at Fire Doll Studio. The room is small is the walls are painted a dark color, likely black. The room is illuminated with warm light and many candles. The musician is a white man, sitting on a stool and playing acoustic guitar. There is a large, seated crowd in front of the stage.
Fire Doll Studio on Facebook

WORST missed opportunity: Lack of live music at non-music venues

There are so many good artists in the area competing for a limited number of slots at C-U’s music venues. They need more places to play. Pour Bros. and Riggs occasionally have bands, but there are plenty of “stage-less” businesses that could fit a microphone and an amp. We love to see things like Fire Doll Studio’s Candlelight Concert series and Harvest Market’s — a grocery store! — live music. These businesses are finding ways to invite creative people into their spaces, to offer more than just their retail products. (DP)

The facade of a rectangular building. It's light brown brick, with an entryway with windows. There is a grassy area and a tree with pink blossoms in front of the building.
Champaign Unit 4 Schools on Twitter

WORST use of funding: Unit 4 not using gun violence prevention funding 

Unit 4 received $500,000 and an entire blueprint for how to utilize the funds from the City of Champaign. This money could have gone towards intervention programs, however, they choose not to spend the money. This information became public around the time there was a shooting near Booker T. Washington elementary. Following public outcry/shaming, Unit 4 was compelled to act and spend the money. It now seems that the funding will be spent on bulletproof windows instead of addressing the root of the problem. (LKG)

A band is in the throes of a performance on a stage bathed in colorful lighting. The backdrop is a vibrant mix of purple and green, with the band’s name emblazoned across it. The ensemble consists of two guitarists and a drummer. The guitarist on the left strums a red electric guitar, dressed in a white shirt and a black tie. In the background, the drummer is engaged with a white drum kit. On the right, another guitarist is visible. The stage is awash with lights in hues of purple, green, and pink.
Olivia Rebellón

WORST part of writing about music in C-U: I don’t know what I don’t know

I attend a lot of shows, and talk to a lot of people in the scene, but I feel like every week this is a band, venue or other music-related happening that hasn’t crossed my radar. Please reach out and tell me what I’m missing! Let me know about your new song, new album, new video, new tour, or new gigs. Tell me about your band if you feel like you’re not getting the attention you deserve. Make suggestions on bands, artists, songs, albums, or gigs you think are worthy of note in our music section. If you’re out and about and think of something, simply pull out your phone and email me at [email protected]. I’ll be glad you did! (DP)

Several women are gathered in a room, holding signs indicating pro-choice views.
Mary Catherine Roberson

WORST city ordinance: Danville banning abortion medication and supplies from being sold and/or shipped 

This was an at best ridiculous and at worst dangerous game that Danville’s mayor and city council decided to play this summer. In response to a women’s health clinic making plans to open in the city — a city that is woefully lacking in reproductive health resources — they passed an ordinance that, if enforced, would be detrimental to the people who would benefit from the services offered by the clinic. It was subject to a legal challenge and deemed acceptable by a court, yet it brought enough negative attention to the clinic that it was attacked two separate times. Gross all around. (JM)

A piece of foundation stands in a large pit filled with debris.
Julie McClure

WORST end to a longstanding establishment: Tearing down Clark Bar 

Clark Bar, at its height, was a beloved neighborhood bar where you could have a drink on the patio and listen to live music. Though it fell off in its later years, it deserved a better ending than a parking lot. (LKG)

A white rectangular sign with blue block letters that say VOTING. There is an orange arrow under the word.
Jessica Hammie

WORST election turnout (again): April municipal elections 

I know that we talk about this a lot at Smile Politely, but it’s important and it doesn’t seem to be changing for the better. I get it. Apathy is real and local elections just don’t have the attention-grabbing nature of presidential or even midterm election years. But these folks — our actual neighbors — can make the biggest impact on our daily lives. They make decisions regarding gun violence solutions, abortion access, infrastructure, our county jail, and just generally how to spend money and allocate funding in our communities. Turnout will certainly be better during the 2024 election cycle, and we will do our part to make sure you know who is on the ballot. (JM)

The entrance for the Kraft Heinz factory in Champaign, IL. A security station with brick foundation and red trim sits behind a large white and blue sign the reads KraftHeinz. Beyond the entrance is a large parking lot with many cars parked.
Google Images

WORST smell: Kraft’s sewage 

If you had the misfortune of smelling these stanks, you know it was the worst. Gag-inducing, eye watering stanks. Repulsive! (JH)

Screenshot of Atkins Golf Club logo. Green golf course is pictured behind white text with the orange University of Illinois Block I.
Fighting Illini Athletics’ website

WORST restaurant location: Atkins Golf Club 

We’re grateful for The WheelHouse, and hoped for the best with their Urbana venture in Homegrown. It was exciting to see a locally-owned crew jump in and give it a shot. We were bummed to see the restaurant close after a short stint there. People want the restaurant space at Atkins Golf Club to be successful, but with the closing of Homegrown, is that possible? Surely there’s gotta be something that can work in that area of Urbana, one that can be a spot for that neighborhood to go to, but also draw in others as a destination in Southeast Urbana. Riggs has done it! Granted, they aren’t a restaurant, and running a brewery is not totally a great comparison, but there’s at least some form of a blueprint that might work in the area. That isn’t to suggest there should be another brewery in there, but I think we’re all hoping for the best, whatever it ends up being. Right now, it seems as though it is a bit of a doomed restaurant space given its history with Attie’s first, now Homegrown following. (PS)

A billboard advertising Rosati's pizza. On the left, a slice of deep dish pizza. On the right, text that reads "Who's your papa now? Rosati's authentic Chicago Pizza"
Alyssa Buckley

WORST billboard: Who’s your Pizza Daddy? 

There was some discussion among editors about making this entry BEST Billboard. In some ways, it is the best: best chuckle, best groan, best eye roll, best cringe. But really, it’s the WORST. It certainly gives the ick, and as Food & Drink editor Alyssa Buckley wrote in May, feels “kind of aggressive…and awfully nosy.” We know that Rosati’s wants to establish dominance among other pizza shops, but, uh, maybe this isn’t the way to do it. Just make a good pie. (JH)

Alyssa Buckley, Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, Derrick Philips, Serenity Stanton Orengo, and Patrick Singer contributed to this article.

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