The twin cities of Champaign-Urbana may not be known for good food, but we’re here to tell you they don’t get enough credit. The flagship public school of the state of Illinois brings together a variety of cuisines to serve students and locals alike. There are some great places to take note of here – you just have to know where to find them.
Whether you’re visiting, passing through, or currently living in the area, here’s where you should be eating in Champaign-Urbana.
Excellent barbecue for any part of the country. The strategy here is to try as many things as possible, which is why you need a platter. We suggest you fill it with burnt ends, pulled pork or smoked BBQ wings, mac n cheese, and sweet potato fries. Whatever your order, make sure to sample all the homemade sauces.
Papa Del’s has been a staple at U of I since 1970. If your parents or family members went to Illinois, they’ll probably be more excited about the prospects of visiting Papa Del’s than visiting you. This pizza is in the upper echelon of deep dish, with its thick, sweet sauce, a crust that holds up well, and endless toppings. Your pizza may be gone at the end of a meal, but your memories and bond with that pizza will last forever. One last thing you need to know: they’ll ship frozen pizzas anywhere in the country, and yes, we’ve ordered them.
Farren’s opened in 2000 on the outskirts of campus, and for a while maintained its hidden-gem status. These days it’s not so hidden – the secret of the simply amazing burgers is out. Our favorite is The Russell burger, packed with bacon, mushrooms, and an irresistible blue cheese sauce. If burgers aren’t you’re thing, the sandwiches and tacos are also great. Post up at the bar for a quick, easy fix.
It’s 2015, which means even landlocked cities like Champaign have great sushi. KoFusion fulfills the needs of all those who crave tuna rolls. Thankfully, a second location opened closer to campus right near the student residences, so blame it on convenience when mom and dad ask why the credit card bill is so high. Get the simple stuff, or a Big Roll if you want to get crazy – it’s a tempura-fried roll with crabmeat, avocado, tamago, cream cheese, and black mushroom. Sushi not your thing? The place is called KoFusion for a reason – check out the bulgogi or stir fries instead. True KoFusion veterans know to go for the all-you-can-eat Friday lunch or or $1 roll night on Mondays and Thursdays.
A unique spin on a bar/restaurant, Seven Saints specializes in gourmet sliders – choose between excellent options like the smokey bbq, tropical, fried chicken and more. There are obviously other things on the menu, but other than the huge selection of beers, they’re really not worth your time. This place is ideal for a night out with friends or even entertaining parents when in town.
Bacaro is one of the few restaurants in Champaign worthy of a true special occasion, and it’s as close to fine dining as you’ll get in this town. Midwestern flair appears on the menu in the form of rabbit, pork loin, and filet, which all come from local farms. Everything is prepared with utmost attention to detail.
Craft beers paired with great food doesn’t get any better than at Destihl. Part restaurant, part brewery, Destihl’s menu has something for everyone – including an outstanding brunch. Beer drinkers (aka everyone – this is a college town after all) will be satisfied with the 50 or so homemade brews. We recommend the cheese curds, thai wings, chorizo stuffed dates, and some Tums.
This small market and restaurant taught us what truly authentic Mexican food really is. The chefs behind the counter at this hole-in-the-wall have never done us wrong, but our favorites are the el pastor, chorizo, and steak tacos, and tortas. Students regularly flock from all over campus to partake in $1 taco night – do not miss it.
Manolo’s is the thin crust pizza yin to Papa Del’s deep dish yang. While the pizza is truly great, definitely also try some of their 20+ styles of empanadas. Get delivery, pop in for a ready-made slice, or order at the Canopy Club next door the next time you’re there for a show.
Another place worthy of a special occasion or classier night out, Radio Maria was built – literally – by a couple that put their education to work (they studied sculpture and painting at U of I). The hearty American food – like hanger steak, pot roast, duck, and scallops – is great, but there’s also a separate tapas menu equally deserving of your attention.
Since 1980, Courier Café has been famous for its delicious breakfasts and old-world, antique atmosphere. If you happen to wake up in time for breakfast or brunch, Courier Cafe is a very solid move, and scientifically proven to cure hangovers.
Like skipping class on a Friday morning, Joe’s is always a good idea. This might be one of the most popular bars on campus, but it also holds its own when it comes to food. The wings are the draw, but the build-your-own burgers and chicken sandwiches are also great. Pop in on a Tuesday for 90’s dance music night – crazy things have been known to happen to the soundtrack of Sandstorm by Darude.
Dos Reales and Burrito King are two separate restaurants, but they are owned by the same people and are virtually the same places despite different names. Students hit them both to consume mass quantities of their excellent queso, and the strong margaritas don’t hurt. They are both great for big group birthdays with your friends complete with sombreros, mariachi music, tequila, and más tequila.
Burrito King is the follow-up spot from the Dos Reales crew, and it's home on Green St. has some of the best queso we've ever had. Students flock to both DR and BK for their strong margaritas, giant plates of Mexican food, and that delicious queso. Hit it up with a large group, especially for a birthday when you can get sombreros, mariachi, and tequila involved. Also, queso.
Jarling’s is an old-fashioned soda shop that also serves everybody’s favorite frozen custard. If you’re lucky enough to be in Champaign during the summer, then Jarling’s is a must. The most difficult part of your day – and possibly trip to Champaign as a whole – will be which endless toppings to put in your snowstorm. Don’t sleep on the homemade ice cream pies either, which make for the ultimate birthday gift or perfect end to a long Sunday on the couch watching football.