Foodies find locavore meals all over the Champaign-Urbana metro area. A fresh poke bowl, vegan doughnuts or an interesting salad made with picked-that-morning veggies are as readily available as 99-cent tacos. This rich culinary scene helped the metro win “Greatest Midwest Food Town” last year by Midwest Living magazine’s People’s Choice awards.
Leave the pizza and beer to the students. Here are some restaurants in Champaign-Urbana worthy of extra credit:
Many of downtown Champaign’s old buildings, including the train station, transformed into adorable restaurants giving the area an urban-cool vibe and place where college students take their parents. Start the evening with a brewed-on-site beer, like a Blind Pig U of IPA, at Blind Pig Brewery (they have three locations in the area). On a warm night, their brick and ivy lined patio, strung with lights, is the best seat in the house.
The meats, veggies, herbs and honey used in the kitchen at the charming and delicious V. Picasso come from nearby Willow Creek Farm. The chefs like to experiment. For example, the roasted asparagus appetizer comes topped with capers, pistachio, basil, preserved lemon and potato chips.
A more artsy spot with tarot cards under glass tables is the former 1920 glass store Radio Maria. The menu matches the eclectic decor with dishes like carrot cake pancakes, green curry hot pots and pulled pork tortas with orange chipotle barbecue sauce.
Nostalgic U of I alumni crave Papa Del’s Pizza. Chefs make dough every two hours before loading on spicy tomato sauce, cheese and other add-ons. The new, off-campus location is in an art deco industrial building on South Neil Street. And, an expanded menu includes more beer, wine and non-pizza options.
International students make up almost one quarter of the student population which in turn ups the global food scene. Golden Harbor Chinese boasts 3,000 different menu items with entire sections designated for sea cucumbers, frog legs, baby squid and duck tongue. No tipping allowed; just a $1 per table clean-up fee. At the Indonesian-styled Café Kopi try a turkey pesto panini.
Urbana may be smaller and more laid-back of the twin cities, but it still is a mighty culinary contender. To-die-for burnt ends and barbecue that consistently ranks among the Midwest’s best is piled high at Black Dog Smoke & Ale House. Plan to arrive at a decent hour before they sell out. Budget-friendly ethnic eats are in Urbana, too. Try Kofusion’s $1-per piece sushi or make-your-own stir fry.
In the Urbana Arts District, The Bread Company draws crowds for European-styled sandwiches on warm bread or tomato basil fondue with crudites, fresh bread and roasted potatoes for dipping. Urbana is also home to the trendy new Broadway Food Hall, a food court with an eclectic collection of some of central Illinois’ best restaurants. Roam the open-layout, modern industrial space and find meals like a poke bowl, gourmet grilled cheese or a hearty pastrami sandwich. A popular pick at Broadway Food Hall is Muchacho, known for its Korean/Mexican rice bowls. You can’t get much more farm-to-table than The Courier Cafe’s salad bar with organic veggies harvested from its nearby urban garden. You’re welcome to walk through the rows of elevated beds to see what’s growing.
About a mile from downtown Champaign sits Campustown, a festive neighborhood where the students hang. Plan on lots of bars, cheap eats and food trucks. But, it’s also a great breakfast spot. From their food truck or restaurant, savor the blueberry cake doughnut and a spiced chai from Pandamonium Doughnuts, or go for an artisanal, morning-after breakfast sandwich at Cracked with ingredients like homemade bacon onion jam or sweet ‘n spicy cream cheese. The area’s best sushi is here, too, at Sakanaya. The small restaurant’s big menu includes a VIP Roll with grilled salmon, lobster tempura, asparagus and onion, and flamed with Bacardi rum.
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