Your guide to seeing college football action up close in Illinois, including what to eat and where to stay in every town.
Most of the tailgating takes place in the west parking lot, which is located off Central Street by the famous hot dog joint Mustard's Last Stand. Mustard's moves outdoors on game day where they sling food at an old fashioned hot dog stand. Three hours before gametime, Wildcat Alley, which is located on the football grass practice field, opens to the public. This tailgating zone offers a variety of activities such as an inflatable football toss, face painting, and a stage which features interviews with Northwestern coaches and prizes that can be won by fans.
Found restaurant is a local favorite offering super seasonal, rustic new American dishes inspired by 1920s Bohemian Paris and icons of the Beat Generation. Grab a seat on their 25-seat sidewalk patio and enjoy beautifully prepared, non-fussy fare like their lamb meatballs with mint yogurt sauce while taking in the sights and sounds of bustling downtown Evanston.
An urban tavern that epitomizes the term “local”, Farmhouse is another can’t-miss dining destination. No matter if you’re just looking to belly up with a craft beer at the bar or go all-out with a four-course meal, this Evanston gem won’t disappoint. Make sure to order the Wisconsin beer-battered cheese curds which are, hands-down, the best in town and definitely save room for dessert. The craft brews and libations here are all sourced from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana or Michigan purveyors and they even have five proprietary ciders made from organic apples, our favorite of which is Don’t Tell William.
If you love craft brews and barbecue, then make sure to post-up post-game at Smylie Brothers Brewing Company. This sprawling, warehouse-like hotspot has 24 taps with a super seasonal rotation of their eponymous, award-winning brews. Looking to soak up some more suds? Make sure to pop over to the tap room at Temperance Beer Co., Evanston’s first and oldest brewery and tap room.
While Evanston’s brewery scene is booming, you don’t have to limit yourself to the beer list if you’re looking to drink local. While staying near Northwestern’s campus, make sure to visit FEW Spirits where you can learn about the history of their gin and whiskey as you sample their made-on-site craft spirits.
While visiting Evanston, make sure to carve out additional time to explore more of Chicago’s North Shore as it’s home to a plethora of must-see cultural destinations. While there’s no shortage of options, here’s three of my personal favorite destinations I feel you’d be remiss not to experience.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in nearby Skokie, IL, was founded by Holocaust survivors and is devoted to both honoring those who were lost and educating the public about combating hatred and prejudice. While there’s numerous exhibits to explore, the museum's Take a Stand Center is absolutely not-to-be-missed. The centerpiece is theAbe and Ida Copper Survivor Stories Experience, which was named a top 12 exhibit to see worldwide by Smithsonian Magazine. Utilizing new technology to enable “conversations” with recorded Holocaust survivors via 3D holography, there’s truly no words to describe how impactful this experience is. Interesting fact? Of the eight recorded Survivors, seven of them are from the Chicagoland area.
With 27 gardens and four natural areas, where else on the North Shore can you climb a waterfall garden or stroll through an English walled garden than at the Chicago Botanic Garden in nearby Glencoe? Another must-see is the architectural wonder that is the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, just one of ten dedicated temples worldwide devoted to the Baha’i faith.
When tailgating at Northern Illinois make sure to get there early for the tailgate, as the lots open four hours before kickoff. Huskie fans love to tailgate and getting to the game early ensures you’ll be able to take part in all the fun and exciting pre-game festivities NIU has to offer. The main hub of tailgating action takes place in The Yard. Located on the West Lawn, you’ll be able to meet NIU student athletes, enjoy live music, and buy food and drinks. A long standing Huskie tradition, NIU’s Drumline makes frequent tailgate appearances and does an outstanding job of riling up the crowd, so make sure to check them out when tailgating.
Serving students and townies since 1969, kick off game day with an indulgent, homestyle breakfast at Junction Eating Place. This adorably retro diner has all of your breakfast food favorites, but we’re partial to their signature Junction Skillet featuring crispy hash browns, ham, onions, green peppers and cheese with a bed of fluffy eggs served on top.
No visit to DeKalb would be quite complete without trying beer nuggets at Pizza Villa. Think of them as the food mascot of DeKalb. What are they, you ask? They’re hunks of fried dough, usually plain or tossed in parmesan, served in a bag or basket with a side of pizza sauce for dipping. Despite the name, they don’t contain any actual beer, but they are often consumed with pitchers of Miller Lite or PBR. They’re a must-try while in DeKalb.
If you’re looking to escape the post-game crowds at the bars near campus, then head to Twin Tavern & Discount Liquors. A classic small town slashie, this watering hole has been around since 1951 (it is one of DeKalb’s oldest bars) and is the perfect spot to kick back with some beers and a burger.
A staple for NIU students since 1988, Molly’s Eatery & Drinkery is one of the more popular bars near campus thanks to their daily drink specials—$3 drafts and $ 2 well mixers, anyone?—and even lets you “ride the rail” for those looking to relive their college drinking days.
Spend a day sampling farm to spirit whiskey and vodka at Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., the only distillery in DeKalb County and the first of its kind in Illinois. The distillery is open to the public from April to November between 1:30-8:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 1:30-5:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tours begin at the top of every hour and include tastings.
Grange Grove, right in front of the west entrance, is the epicenter of the modern Illini tailgate scene. To lock down a spot inside the Grove, you’ll need to show up between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. the day before the game. During window, you can claim your space by simply dropping your stuff in an area. Putting a tarp over your collection of stuff (i.e. grills, chairs, etc.) is the best way to mark off your area while protecting your things from the elements. The Grove re-opens at 7 a.m. on game day. Just over two hours prior to kickoff, Illini Walk heads through Grange Grove. This is where the Marching Illini and cheerleaders welcome the football team and support staff into the stadium. Gather round and cheer them on!
Champaign-Urbana was named the “Midwest’s Greatest Food Town” by Midwest Living, so there’s certainly no shortage of options when it comes to dining out downtown. If you’re looking to stay on campus, though, here’s a few of our go-to spots.
If you’re looking for a no-frills and filling breakfast then pop into Merry Ann’s Diner, a legendary stop in the Champaign-Urbana community. The original location is on Neil street, but the on campus outpost on Gregory offers the same crave-worthy diner fare. Added bonus? They’re open 24/7.
New students and alumni alike can’t get enough of Papa Del’s Chicago style deep dish pizza. Cooked with their original pan technique, the pizza is loaded with creamy cheese and bright tomato sauce and lies on a bed of thick, crispy crust.
Murphy’s Pub is a renowned and storied Champaign bar, located at the intersection of Green and 6th in the thick of Campustown. It’s also unique for a campus bar in that it attracts both an older and student crowd in a cozy, never-too-packed atmosphere. There’s plenty to do here, too, aside from sitting and sipping drinks. They have pool tables, shuffleboard, and a small area by the jukebox that doubles as an unofficial dance floor.
A favorite among students—and one of the first stops of alumni on trips back to campus—KAM’sis the quintessential college dive bar. One of the most popular hotspots on campus, it’s located right next to the university’s bookstore, within stumbling distance to Greek residences, and is right off the main quad. “Home of the drinking Illini”, it was also named one of the best college bars in America by Playboy magazine.
A fixture in downtown Champaign since officially opening in 1977, Esquire Lounge is one of the oldest bars in town. Old photos and vintage maps of Champaign line the walls and the conversations flow as freely as the drinks do here.
Only in Illinois can you find majestic statues in the middle of prairie lands. Located in neighboring Monticello, the Allerton Park & Retreat Center is a must-see. Once the private estate of Chicago “robber baron” Robert Henry Allerton, the 1,500 acres of woodlands, formal gardens, and sculptures were donated to the University of Illinois in 1946. Today, visitors can tour the historic Georgian-style mansion and and enjoy the gorgeous formal gardens, woodland trails, and incredible sculptures that encompass the grounds free of charge.
ISU home football games offer numerous tailgating lots and options, including the popular Redbird Tent Zone, for those that are driving to the game. Tailgate and parking passes can be purchased in various lots on a first-come, first-serve basis through GoRedbirds.com. Refer to the map to know which lots are designated parking only.
For craft beer and inventive American eats head to DESTIHL Restaurant & Brew Works. This gastropub features up to 17 of its nearby brewery’s beers on tap, including their popular sour ales, that pair perfectly with the creative dishes. We recommend starting with their beer-battered bacon and trying the signature grilled swordfish tacos.
A go-to for loading up on meatballs and marinara for over 45 years, Avanti’s Italian Restaurant offers an expansive—and reasonably priced—menu of all your Italian food favorites. But what Avanti’s is known for is their signature sandwich, The Gondola. It’s ham, salami, American cheese, and lettuce. While that doesn’t sound like anything special, it is! It’s the made-in-house, slightly sweet bread that does the trick.
A popular watering hole among college students and locals, Pub II is an iconic hangout best known for $4 pitchers and their addictive cheddar cheese balls (you’ve been warned!). Fun facts? Pub II was issued the city of Normal’s first liquor license when it finally allowed liquor sales in 1974 and also had a “famous” part time employee. Remember “Jake from State Farm”... who wore khakis? He worked here, which is why there’s a framed pair of khakis on the wall.
Located off the historic Route 66 in neighboring Bloomington, the Miller Park Zoo is one of our favorite ways to spend an afternoon in the area. The zoo began when a lion cub, left behind from a traveling circus, found itself on a farm in 1900. Today, this family-friendly attraction plays host to a plethora of interactive experiences like the Wallaby WalkAbout and exhibits like the Animals of Asia and Tropical America Rainforest. Added bonus? Admission is just $3.50.