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:


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.


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.

food guilt?

My body has been, for lack of a better word, wack since we got to Boston on Sunday. My stomach’s been overly sensitive, even to things I’m usually OK eating – dairy, coffee (sometimes a problem, but OK lately), spicy or rich things, etc. We’re on vacation, so we’ve been eating out almost every meal, which means more spicy or rich things, more coffee (than usual), and just generally more of everything than I’m used to. This has led to two things: more upset stomachs, and more food guilt.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve improbably lost ~five pounds. I say ‘improbably’ because the scale has been stuck in the same ten pound range since high school, and I’ve managed to get five pounds below the lowest number mainly through diet and some exercise. Shane Bee keeps telling me that one week of eating worse than usual won’t hurt me too much, but I still feel really bad. It sucks to say this, but I’m somewhat looking forward to going home and eating normally and not hating myself for every special or elaborate meal I have.

That said, we’ve had some great meals:
– North African at Baraka Cafe in Central Square
– Burger and fries (for SB) and a grazing plate at River Gods in Central Square
– Lobster rolls (for SB) at Charlie’s Kitchen in Cambridge, one of SB’s regular haunts when he worked in Boston
– Lunch at L’Aroma Cafe on Newbury Street in Back Bay, not to be confused with Aroma Cafe in Champaign
– Bagels from Brueggers, which are always good
– Sunday brunch shared with (and cooked by) our CouchSurfing hosts – omelets with turmeric, cheddar cheese, and organic veggies and french toast with cinnamon raisin bread
– Fresh seafood (in chowder and on its own at Freestone’s in New Bedford with Jason

A couple of years ago, not long after moving here, I posted a list of my favorite restaurants in my new hometown. Since then, I’ve gone on a few dates, tried a few new places, and even worked at one restaurant. After three years in town, here are my favorites:

Favorite place for breakfast: Sam’s Cafe, 115 N Walnut St, Champaign (french toast, grits, AND bacon)
Favorite place for lunch in Campustown: Noodles, 528 E Green St, Champaign (I’m hooked on the spicy peanut salad)
Favorite local neighborhood bar: Bentley’s, 419 N Neil St, Champaign (Beth’s Bloody Marys are the best)
Favorite bakery: Mirabelle, 124 W Main St, Urbana (the line’s been out the door the last few times we’ve been)
Favorite place for sushi: Kamakura, 715 S Neil St, Champaign (good and not terribly expensive)
Favorite place for Thai: Thara Thai, 912 1/2 W Bloomington Rd, Champaign (pineapple pad thai)
Favorite place for Mexican: Real Hacienda, 912 W Bloomington Rd, Champaign (cheap margaritas)
Favorite place for lunch in my neighborhood: Cafe Kopi, 109 N Walnut St, Champaign (great coffee and tuna salad salads)
Favorite coffeeshop: Cafe Paradiso, 801 S Lincoln Ave, Urbana (soup from scratch every day, great sandwiches, excellent coffee)
Favorite place for a first date: Crane Alley, 115 W Main St, Urbana (as long as you’re not by the foosball table)
Favorite place for a beer after work: Mike & Molly’s, 105 N Market St, Champaign (great beer and people will leave you alone if that’s what you want)
Favorite place for brunch on the weekend: Courier Cafe, 111 N Race St, Urbana (everything’s good)
Favorite place for cheap beer and bar food: Esquire, 106 N Walnut St, Champaign (mmm pitchers and fries)
Favorite place for a special occasion: Bacaro, 113 N Walnut St, Champaign (seasonal menus and streetside seating in the summer)

What’s your vote?

Every day I live here I love Champaign more. It’s true. I was thinking about this the other day, while emailing Kate. We both went back to Rockford for Christmas and both felt strangely out of place – like the place that was home for so long was no longer home. Kate said the feeling continued when she went back to Lufkin – so for a little while she felt truly like an orphan.

So, in honor of my new home, the city of my choosing, a mini-series about Champaign. At the request of Kevin, here’s a rundown of my favorite restaurants in the greater C-U area:

Best place to go for lunch in Campustown: Za’s, where you must try a pizza with barbeque sauce.

Best place to go for lunch with friends or family: Courier Cafe – actually the first place I went out to eat after I decided to move here. Sarah and Hannah took me here after we looked at apartments in September.

Best place for sushi: Miko, though Shawn says Kamakura. I really like that you can get sushi, Thai, Korean, and Japanese dishes – their Tom Ka soup is terrific too. 🙂

Favorite place in my neighborhood: Aroma Cafe. I like Farren’s, but Aroma’s the first place I walked to in my neighborhood, so it will always be my heart. The weekend I got the keys to my apartment, Sarah, Shawn, and I walked there for lunch – tasty. They have terrific chicken salad, and that gets any restaurant major points in my book.

Best non-Western ethnic place (excepting those mentioned above): I’ve heard good things about ghetto Thai aka Golden Wok, but I’m going to have to cast my vote in favor of Basmati (on First between University and Springfield). We went there for dinner on Saturday and everything was super tasty.

Best Campustown coffee shop: Probably Moonstruck, though both Espresso Royale and Green Street get an honorable mention (and a place in my heart) because of their cool-cool managers.

Best place to go for brunch: Le Peep, even though it’s allllllways busy.

Am I forgetting anything?