Things I Miss About Champaign

I’ve been meaning to make this list for a long time, but Gemma’s recent photos have pushed me to actually writing it up.  My feelings for Champaign are all wrapped up in my grad school experience, my first really fulfilling (and challenging) professional job, and a prolonged period of personal growth and experimentation between the end of my marriage and the beginning of my relationship with Shane – so lots of complicated, complicating things factor into my relationship with that little city in the corn.

  1. Riding my bike down University towards GSLIS early in the morning in the summer – empty roads and the sun coming up through the trees.  A 7 minute commute on a good day.  And then the long months when I couldn’t ride because my arm was in a cast.
  2. West Side Park.  Living across from West Side Park.  Walking home through West Side Park after a long shift at Aroma or a movie at the Art or a too-late night at Mike & Molly’s.
  3. Coffee and sandwiches at Paradiso.  Consistently good music on the stereo.  The smoking section at Paradiso, barely partitioned off by a row of ficus trees.  Books or homework on the “patio”.  Paradiso’s perfect imperfectness.
  4. Living near downtown Champaign, where I never paid more than $500 for a one bedroom apartment, and even that included utilities.  My first solo apartment directly across from the park.  My studio apartment that never really got above 50 degrees in the winter, but that in the summer offered the most fabulous porch for parties.  The apartment with the Wild Things on the wall and the yellow kitchen.  Our last place on Clark, where we rented the entire ground floor for around $750, planted our first garden, spent $300+ on heat in the winter, and enjoyed the mixed blessing of a screened-in entryway – great for cats in the sun, not great for cats escaping.
  5. Saturday mornings at the Urbana farmers’ market, bringing home things I didn’t recognize and that would eventually go bad in the fridge. Splurging on fancy cheese, meat, and a croissant from Art Mart.  Riding our bikes to the market and bringing a dedicated backpack for watermelon or canteloupe.
  6. Friday afternoon Revolution Lunch at Jerusalem Restaurant with my favorite nutters.  The food was fine, but the company was effing crazy.  I’m glad to hear that it hasn’t changed.
  7. French toast at Sam’s, where Shane and I went for breakfast one of the first times he spent the night.  We drew maps of our hometowns on the rectangular napkins.  In case you ever forget, the special is at the top.
  8. Late nights studying at Merry Ann’s with Sarah and Nicole, drinking TERRIBLE coffee and eating fries and goofing around with the servers.  Going to Merry Ann’s at bar time, ordering a grilled cheese sandwich, and being in and out in under 10 minutes.  Greg and I standing on the booth and singing happy birthday to Mark, who brought us screwdrivers mixed in the back.  Hanging out with Shane for the first time after Carl and I had gone to see 2046, all three of us wasted but on totally different things (exhaustion, alcohol, an emotionally weighty movie).  Many many plates of fries before Subversion.
  9. Boltini bingo.  We went almost every week the last summer we lived there, but I didn’t win ANYTHING until my very last card on my very last bingo.  Marv gave me his oversized clapper, which I kept until we moved to Michigan.
  10. AromaWorking at Aroma.  Drinking mojitos outside Aroma in the spring of 2003.  Working 20 hour days (Aroma + Carle) in the fall of 2004 when it was easier to not sleep than to deal with my heartbreak.  10 hour kitchen shifts with all New Order all the time, getting fake engaged to Sam, smoking out front with Carl and Erich and Leah in the summer.  Ryan’s shark mug and Dave catching flies out the air.  Flirting with customers who became friends.  Coffee grounds permanently under my fingernails.  A good place and a good time, though definitely not the best coffee in the world.
  11. Symposium at the Esquire, and the Esquire in general.  For at least the first year after we left Champaign, I would often sigh and say that I just wanted to go the Esquire for dinner – cheap beer, cheap bar food, endless bowls of peanuts.  Always the same, never disappointing – just a solid townie bar.
  12. The Blind Pig in the winter of 2004-2005.  Holding hands with Carl on my 25th birthday.  A snowball fight in the middle of the night in the middle of Walnut Street.  It’s still a great bar, and I know Shane misses it greatly, but (oh this is so hipster) I stopped truly loving it when the sign went up.
  13. Swimming laps in the outside pool at IMPE in the summer of 2005.  I had started exercising that spring, but realized after my first botched length that Curves had nothing on laps in the 50 meter pool.  Sunshine, chlorine, hard work, bliss.
  14. Sunday nights at Bentley’s – our Local Neighborhood Bar – with the GSLIS crew.  Beth’s Bloody Marys and Blue Moons adorned with loads of snacks.  So many games of Bohnanza that we bought a second copy – one for the bar, another for occasions when we were less likely to spill drinks.  Planning our first Bonnaroo, celebrating our first NYE, eating a whole lot of miniature pizzas.
  15. Gyne instruction totally changed my understanding of my own body, and of the range of what constitutes ‘normal’.  I am so thankful for having the opportunity to work with such a remarkable group of women and to become empowered to advocate for my own health.  In the years since, a number of friends have felt comfortable asking me about gyne health stuff because they knew I had this experience and was willing to talk about it openly.  What a remarkable gift.
  16. Porch parties at my place on Springfield.  There weren’t many of them, but oh, they were wonderful.
  17. So much enduring love for Cafe Kopi.  I can’t believe I lived in Champaign almost a year before I found it, and can’t believe I haven’t found a comparable spot since.  Actually, I can believe it.  Kopi has something really special going on.  The coffee and food aren’t remarkable, but they’re solidly good, as are the staff and the ambiance.  I spent way too many nights doing my grad school reading over their cafe miels and tuna salad salads – and swatting away the ever-present flies on the patio.  Those things will survive the apocalypse, I swear.
  18. Mike & Molly’s may be my most favorite bar ever.  Shane preferred the Blind Pig, but my heart belongs to M&M.  Lots of nights reading with a beer, hanging out with townie friends, dancing to music played in the loft by friends.  Someone – Tim? Steve? – trying to explain darts to me.  The chalkboard in the bathroom.  Knowing that I was a regular when I forgot my ID and the bartender vouched for me to the doorman.  The bar’s vignette in Tell Me Do You Miss Me.  Carl arranging for my induction into Pi Omega Omega on my next-to-last night in town.
  19. Nox/Subversion and the year that saw me on the dance floor almost every week.  I told Shane recently that I missed out on being a raver girl because I didn’t live in a big city in my early 20s.  Instead, I had Tuesday nights at the High Dive with Emily and Jim playing the music I always wanted to listen to but didn’t know how to discover on my own.  Saturday nights with Tim in the booth and reciprocal pants protection with Shane and Karin.  Meeting Brian and Ben and Kristina and so many others.  Dancing when I was sick, dancing when my heart was breaking, dancing when I’d had too much to drink, dancing on the patio in the pouring rain.
  20. And then there’s everything about GSLIS: getting my job, making my friends, meeting Shane, finding a career path, getting a real job, discovering and falling in love with and then hating and then loving research.  All the wonderful, remarkable, challenging, and exceptional people who over the years became friends, colleagues, trusted associates, and family.  I can’t even begin to articulate the ways that this school changed my life.

Ultimately, though, what I miss is being able to walk everywhere – and the fact that wherever I went, I would run into someone I knew.  Hell, it’s been four years and that is still often the case.  And it goes without saying that the people and relationships made Champaign my home, but there are far too many of them to list here.

Church Key and Hot Pot

Now that we’re home and reflecting on our trip, I realize that we have very few photos of some of the most fun or interesting things we did on our trip. Like dinner on our first night – our first experience with Mongolian hot pot.

Nate – a high school friend of Shane’s – and his wife Sharon get gold stars for the week for picking us up and driving us down to San Mateo for hot pot after a long day of moving – and also for a great list of restaurant recommendations, but we’ll get to that later. Sharon gets an extra gold star for her masterful ordering of just the right delicious things for our hot pot, plus her patience in answering my questions about the random stuff in the hot pot itself.

Hot pot functions sort of like fondue, except that at the end of the meal, you have an intensely flavored soup left in the pot instead of weird coagulated cheese or melted chocolate. Appetizing, right? Sorry. We were presented with a veritable cauldron of broth, divided into spicy and not so spicy.

hot pot king broth
Photo by scaredy_kat

Along with the broth, which was placed on a flat heating surface, Sharon ordered several kinds of meat and vegetables that we would prepare by dropping it into the boiling broth. We were literally surrounded by bowls of tofu and taro, platters of thinly sliced lamb and beef, and a tray of different kinds of mushrooms, all of which would go into the soup and then into our happy mouths.

An Overview of Hot Pot
Photo by peruisay

Over the course of an hour, we cooked the meat, then the taro (yum!), then the mushrooms, then finally added the greens and spooned out bowls of wonderful soup filled with all sorts of mysterious nuts and sticks and berries. In between savory bites, we snacked on some sort of delicious roll dipped in evaporated milk – probably intended to be a dessert, but just fine in the middle of the meal as well – and sipped on green tea. As Nate and Sharon mentioned, the main down-side of hot pot is that you leave smelling like, well, hot pot. That’s fine by me!

hot pot!
Photo by timofeic

I should also mention that before dinner, we found that we had an hour to kill and so wandered up Grant Street in search of Church Key, a little neighborhood bar with an excellent beer list. This is the sort of place we long for in Ann Arbor – small and friendly with an excellent selection and comfortable seats, and where it is possible to walk in at 5:30 on a weeknight and get a beer with no hassle or wait or pressure to buy dinner. Can someone please make that happen? Please?

Beers at Church Key


If you go:
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
215 South Ellsworth Avenue
San Mateo, CA 94401
(650) 343-2566

I loved it, but it’s far afield if you’re staying in SF, and probably impossible if you don’t have access to a car.

Church Key
1402 Grant Avenue (Grant and Green)
San Francisco, CA 94133-3304
(415) 986-3511

Neighborhood-y spot with an excellent beer list and a comfortable couch for people-watching.

Food and drink (well, mainly food)

Someone posted on one of GSLIS’s community BBs asking for restaurant recommendations in C-U. I spent an embarrassingly long time on my list this morning, so I’m going to post it here so that I don’t have to do all this all over again. In long/short, here’s a list of places I like/love/tolerate in C-U:

Campustown

Cafe Luna is lovely at lunch time, with tapas at dinner. I haven’t been for dinner in a while, but it was great when I went a couple of years ago. Corner of 4th and Green in the funny wooden building – either go up the stairs from Green and turn to your left, or enter from the side entrance on 4th.

In the same building is the Crepe Cafe, formerly known as Tout Sweet (and formerly owned by the same people as Cafe Luna). Haven’t had their crepes, but their gelato and sorbetto is really wonderful. It’s been extremely quiet every time I’ve been there, so this might be a super sneaky good place to go grab a treat and read or catch up with a friend while on campus. Enter from the big wooden stairs, then turn right.

Jerusalem Cafe, at the corner of Wright and Healey, is a personal favorite, though I can’t actually say if their falafel is wonderful. The food is reasonably priced, and there are daily specials that never change but get you a good amount of food for under $5. I like #201, which I believe is a falafel sandwich with fries and a drink, but it could also be the plate of the day, which gets you veggies, hummus, pita, salad, and other good stuff.

Murphy’s, near the corner of 6th and Green, is a Campustown staple.  Nearly every wooden surface is grooved with years and years worth of graffiti, but the burgers are cheap and tasty and the beer is cold.  Avoid at all costs during basketball season.

Papa Del’s, on Green between 2nd and 3rd, has maybe the best pizza in town. It’s kind of legendary. You can buy by the slice or a whole pie, and I think there’s some kind of special after 3? My brother lived here for five years, and Papa Del’s is the only thing (other than the Blind Pig) that he wants when he’s back in town to visit.

Urbana

Cafe Paradiso, at the corner of Lincoln and Nevada, is one of my very favorite places in town. It’s been here a long time and has a lot of character – as well as great food. They have daily soups (usually one will be vegetarian or vegan) and (in the summer) pasta salad made from scratch, as well as sandwiches made to order, pastries from Mirabelle, and a great selection of bottled drinks if you’re not into coffee. I haven’t had a thing here that I didn’t like.

Bread Company is wonderful. We had kind of lousy service the last time we were there, but the food is always fabulous – hot and cold sandwiches, fondue or raclette(!!), interesting and wonderful specials, and outdoor seating. It’s just a charming little restaurant. Bread Co is on Goodwin between Oregon and Nevada, in between Espresso Royale and the Canopy Club complex.

Courier Cafe is a C-U staple. It’s the place everyone takes their parents when they’re in town. I love the sweet potato fries. Courier is on Race Street just north of Main.

Mirabelle is a lovely little bakery on Main between Race and Broadway. On the weekends, there’s a line out the door for pastries and bread during the farmers’ market. It’s much quieter on weekdays, so if you need a treat and coffee before class, stop in.

Just across the street is Crane Alley, which I still can’t decide if I love. They have a lot of good food – beet chips and goat cheese, excellent fish sandwiches – and pool and a lovely beer/wine selection, but it’s one of those places I don’t ever crave. That said, they have outdoor seating and several pool tables, so it can be a fun place to go with friends.

Siam Terrace, also on Main, is maybe the best Thai I’ve had in town, though I haven’t been back in a long time. It’s pricier than other Thai options to be discussed later.

Strawberry Fields is located between Main and Springfield in Urbana. It’s the local Whole Foods equivalent. Their deli has lots of veggie options including this broccoli (fake) bacon thing that kills me. They also have a great selection of sandwiches – my personal favorite is the Curious George: honey, peanut butter, and coconut! It’s also a great place to stop in and buy some fruit, snacks, and a takeaway salad or two for late night snacking.

Along similar lines, Art Mart, located in the Lincoln Square Mall, has delicious snacks, pastries, and a killer deli. It’s one of the only things actually worth seeing in the mall – pretty housewares, fancy kitchen stuff, and a lovely selection of gourmet things.

Miko, on University just past the Carle clinic/hospital complex, is a combination Thai/Korean/Japanese place. They have good sushi and tom kha soup, as well as bento lunches and teppan tables. Menu online.

Champaign – Ethnic

I have an inordinate fondness for Basmati, located at the corner of 1st and White. It’s not amazing Indian, but I do so love it. Order off the menu most nights, but some nights (Thursdays and Sundays?) they put out a delicious buffet.

Despite my boss’s love for Fiesta Cafe (across the street from Basmati, same intersection), I’ve found their portions to be way too big and the food not that stellar.

My favorite Thai place is Thara Thai, located on Bloomington Road off of Prospect (before 74). Their food is cheaper than Siam Terrace, but almost as good. I love the pineapple pad thai, pad see ew, and Thai iced coffee.

Right next door is my favorite Mexican place: Real Hacienda. Their portions are still pretty big (see Fiesta Cafe), but it’s less crowded and loud, their margaritas are cheap, and the food is better than any other Mexican I’ve had in town.

Sushi Kame, which opened in downtown Champaign a few months ago, has decent, affordable sushi. It was formerly Hinode, which was not great but cheap. I’ve only been there once and the service was terrible, but everything we ate was good. On Main between Neil and Randolph.

KoFusion, located in the One Main building at the corner of Neil and Church/Main, has good but expensive sushi. I think you’re really paying for the atmosphere there. Go for lunch if you go at all. Menu online.

Kamakura, on Neil between Green and John, is my favorite place for sushi in town. I’m not really sure why I prefer it over the others, but I do. They also have teppan tables, as well as a variety of intriguing desserts.

Champaign – Breakfast

Sam’s Cafe is, hands down, my favorite place to go for breakfast in C-U. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall diner-y place on Walnut between University and Taylor, and they have the best French toast ever. It’ll be crowded, but it’s worth it, and you’ll be very hard pressed (or very hungry) to spend more than $7-10.

Merry Ann’s Diner (two locations: on Main between Walnut and Neil in the One Main building, and at the corner of Neil and Kirby) has garden variety diner food, terrible coffee, but round-the-clock food in case you’re drunk or up late/early.

Jim Gould, surprisingly enough, has a really lovely breakfast, which they begin serving at 7:30. Shane had a great omelette, and I had a big bowl of fruit, yogurt, and granola. Their Sunday brunch is expansive but overpriced. Menu online.

Escobar’s, on Columbia behind the post office, just opened a few months ago. We had Sunday brunch there a few weeks ago, and it was great. Generous portions, but not TOO much. I haven’t had any other meals there, but I’m looking forward to going back. Menu online.

Radio Maria‘s Sunday brunch is a downtown Champaign staple. I can think of few better ways to waste a Sunday morning/afternoon than sitting on Radio’s patio drinking a mimosa and having the masa boat surprise. They also have tapas and killer entrees, discussed later. Radio is located at the corner of Walnut and Taylor in downtown Champaign. Menu online.

Carmon’s, located at the corner of Hill and Neil, has the best sticky rolls in town. It’s currently closed for renovations, and really pretty much everything else there is so-so, but damn, those sticky rolls!

A lot of people swear by the Original Pancake House, which I’m grudgingly including even though it’s a chain.  Their portions are generous, but half portions are frequently available, so I highly recommend asking if you have a smaller appetite or just don’t want to use all of your day’s calories in one meal.  We usually split an order of the Eggs Michael.  Located in the Round Barn shopping center just past the intersection of Springfield and Mattis.

Champaign – Coffeeshops

I worked at Aroma Cafe, on Neil between Park and University, for 2 1/2 years, so I can safely say that I’ve eaten just about anything that could come out of their kitchen. It’s not amazing, but it’s all good stuff. The kids quesadilla is the best deal on the menu. There’s front and back patio seating, and the owner is a GSLIS alum. They have music Thursday nights which can be very hit or miss. Menu online.

Cafe Kopi, on Walnut between University and Main, is one of my favorite places in town to eat, read, or people watch. Along with Paradiso, they’ve been around quite a long time, and are frequented by townies and students alike. You’ll almost always run into a GSLISer there. They have great salads (the tuna salad salad being my favorite) and sandwiches and have recently started offering paninis. I love their coffee – the cafe miel is my favorite. Menu online.

Champaign – Restaurant-bars

Seven Saints, located at the corner of Chester St (the right turn lane of University at this point) and Market St in downtown Champaign, just opened about two weeks ago. The chef from Crane Alley (see above) jumped ship to come here, and oh god, I am so happy. They have lots of salads, sandwiches, things that look suspiciously like the Crane Alley menu, and a whole page of “sliders”, gourmet mini-burgers which you can fairly cheaply pair with a half salad. (This is more for the townies, but it’s worth noting that Seven Saints is the latest venture of the Nieto bar empire, which also owns Jupiter’s, The Highdive, Cowboy Monkey, Guido’s, Soma, and another place that I can’t remember. This basically means you’ll get the same hit-or-miss service you do at all the other places. All of the Nieto places are non-smoking, with smoking outside.)

Right next door at the corner of University/Chester and Walnut, is the Esquire, which is always a good place for cheap beer and bar food. I crave their veggie burgers and fries like nothing else. I think they went back to allowing smoking, but outdoor seating is available.

Continuing on the trend of Nieto bars with restaurants, Cowboy Monkey, confusingly located on Taylor Street (which is more like an alley or a pedestrian walkway), has a great patio and summer menu. They have live music almost every night, so you can pay to go in, or listen from outside. Menu online.

Guido’s, at the corner of Main and Neil, doesn’t change their menu much, but I don’t care because I love it. We’re big fans of their house salad (black beans and corn, romaine, steak or chicken), black bean burger, onion rings, and pulled pork sandwiches. Not all that great service, but a really lovely patio that wraps around the corner.

Boltini, kitty-corner across the street at 211 N Neil (yes, I know this off the top of my head), has really wonderful salads and cheese plates and a long long martini list. Our favorites are the circus salad (mixed greens, broccoli, tomatoes, hard boiled egg, capers, and marinated tuna) and the pub dip. We go there on Tuesdays for the Boltini bingo lounge variety show.

Farren’s can be hit or miss. It alternates between crowded and empty, and while I’ve never had anything not-good there, I also haven’t had anything I’ve LOVED. My townie friends swear by it, though. They have burgers, salads, and sandwiches mainly. On Randolph between Church and Hill in the alley behind Nitaya Thai (which you should skip because it’s nothing special).

Jupiter’s is a good place to split a thin-crust pizza with a couple of friends. They have a good specialty pizzas, or you can pick your own toppings. There’s competitive pool here a couple of nights per week. They’re on Main between Walnut and Market. Menu online.

Champaign – Fancy-pants Restaurants

Radio Maria (mentioned above) has tapas and great entrees. I love the adobo pork, mezze plate and torta maria from the dinner menu, and the paella, asparagus bundles, and grilled plantains from the tapas menu. We were there last night for dessert, which was also incredibly lovely. They’ve just expanded to include a really nice bar/lounge area, so it’s a good place to pop in for a snack and a drink OR stay for a whole meal. Menu again online.

Bacaro, located on Walnut between Neil and Taylor, changes their menu seasonally but is always killer. Last summer we had this circus-themed dessert which was just totally fun and inventive: caramel corn, a mini fudgesicle, and a couple of other tiny treats all made in-house. It’s pricey, but generally quite worth it – or just a good place to have a glass of wine with a friend.

The Great Impasta, near the corner of Church and Neil, is more traditionally Italian. Their regular menu is online, but the specials are always the most interesting things available, and they’re updated based on market availability. I’ve had some very good meals here, and a couple of ordinary ones. It can be very crowded, so make reservations in advance. I’ve never been there for lunch, but I bet it would be nice, despite the construction going on next door. Menu online.

Jim Gould (mentioned above) has very meat heavy lunches and dinners – I’ve been told that lunch is the real bargain, but I was underwhelmed (and overfed) when I went there for dinner, so I can take it or leave it. Menu online.

Champaign – Other

Jarling’s Custard Cup, on Kirby in Champaign, is a summer staple.