Posted by Porcshe N. Moran
On the first Friday of September, I hit the road for the five-and-a-half hour drive to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois from my home in Missouri. One of my best friends from college lives in this east-central Illinois metropolitan area, and it was high time for me to pay him a visit. Champaign-Urbana is best known as the home of the University of Illinois flagship campus, but higher education isn't the only thing that these two cities have going for them.
It was 8:30 p.m. on Friday when I arrived at my friend's apartment in Champaign. I was ready for something to eat, so we walked the short distance to downtown for dinner and drinks at Big Grove Tavern. While we waited at the bar for a table to open up on the outdoor patio, I sipped on the Georgia Peach, a house cocktail consisting of Absolut vodka, peach liqueur, melon water, lemon juice and simple syrup. The bartender supplied us with complimentary oregano-basil popcorn, and my friend and I split an order of tasty house-cut Kennebec fries served with a malt vinegar aioli. For my main entree, I got the Tavern Burger, a beef, bison & pork burger topped with red onion marmalade, cornichon aioli and Rockome's Amish white cheddar. Big Grove Tavern is a nice, casual place to spend an evening. I loved the upscale, rustic decor, lively atmosphere and their self-proclaimed "Midwest craft cuisine" menu that focuses on fresh, local ingredients.
After dinner, we went across the street to a stylish cocktail bar called Boltini Lounge. Unfortunately, the outdoor patio was full. But, there was plenty of room inside at the bar, and a DJ was playing. I love fancy drinks, and Boltini is abundant with traditional and updated versions of martinis, Manhattans, cosmopolitans and gimlets. They also have wine, craft beers and small-batch distilled spirits. The food menu stays away from fried fare and features tapas, soups, salads, tacos, sandwiches and desserts. Boltini would be an ideal place to take a date or a group of friends for a classy night out.
Saturday was a busy day. We kicked things off at Urbana's Market at the Square. There were tons of vendors selling everything from fruit, vegetables and homemade pastas to jewelry, clothing and pet accessories. There were some food trucks at the event, and I grabbed breakfast at one called Cracked. As the name implies, the menu revolves around eggs. However, I managed to find two egg-less selections. The Parmesan truffle tots and the buttermilk biscuit pancakes, which are fried buttermilk biscuit dough drizzled in honey or maple syrup and dusted with powdered sugar, were amazing! I was craving them for days after I was back at home.
We left the market at around noon and went next door to the Common Ground Food Cooperative. This community-owned grocery store promotes organic and local foods and products. They also host cooking classes and programs on overall wellness. The Co-op is connected to Lincoln Square mall which has various stores, eateries and offices, but the main attraction for me was wandering around the Urbana Landmark Hotel & Convention Center. It was built in 1923 by a group of Urbana citizens who wanted to increase tourism, entertainment and cultural opportunities in central Illinois. The hotel closed for in 2009 before being purchased and renovated by developer Xiao Jin Yuan. The European-style boutique hotel reopened in November 2012. We also checked out some other places in the mall including Art Mart Food (I had their delicious banana fudge praline gelato), Art Coop, Inc. and Transitions, a non-profit secondhand clothing store that raises money for the residents of The Center for Women in Transition.
We refueled for the second half of the afternoon with lunch at Rosati's Authentic Chicago Pizza. I ordered a slice of their double dough pepperoni pizza and split an order of the Teryaki chicken wings with my friend. Everything was delicious. Their slices are big enough to be a meal, and they come with a drink for just $5. Just like my meal at Cracked, I found myself craving Rosati's days later. The food is inexpensive and quick, but the taste is high-quality.
Next, we took a abbreviated tour of the University of Illinois campus which included the Morrow Plots, the University of Illinois Observatory, the McFarland Memorial Tower, the State Farm Center arena and the colorful, enormous blob sculptures known as Darwin's Playground. We also stopped by the Krannert Art Museum in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. This museum has more than 10,000 permanent works spread throughout 10 galleries. There are 12 to 15 rotating exhibits each year. I was impressed by the size of the museum and the diversity of the artwork on display.
The final location on our campus excursion was the University of Illinois Arboretum. It's 57-acres of plant collections and gardens. I could have stayed at the Arboretum all day just soaking in the immense beauty of the grounds. Every inch of the natural space is gorgeous, but my two favorite spots were the Miles C. Hartley Selections Garden with its hundreds of flowering plants and Japan House. The three-room house wasn't open during our visit, but we got to take a walk through the property's serene Japanese-style gardens.
We ended the afternoon with a snack at Pekara Bakery & Bistro. They specialize in all-natural European breads and desserts in addition to salads, sandwiches, soups, omelettes, crepes, coffee, tea and smoothies. I had an almond croissant dusted with powdered sugar.
Despite a jammed packed day, we didn't slow down for the evening. We went to the Art Theater Co-op to see Woody Allen's latest film, Blue Jasmine. At the concession stand, I purchased popcorn and my first-ever glass of Illinois wine, the semi-sweet Weiner Dog White from Alto Vineyards & Winery. After the movie, we had dinner at Radio Maria. They have a full tapas menu, and we indulged in the fried artichoke hearts, eggplant frites, lamb meatballs and steamed mussels. We ate our delectable feast outside on the sidewalk patio. Our meal was followed by live music and dancing at Cowboy Monkey and then more dancing at the chic Soma UltraLounge.
My weekend in Champaign-Urbana was the ideal blend of great food, culture, art, and tranquil nature. From the University of Illinois' museums and gardens to a vibrant, hip downtown scene that appeals to adults and college students alike, the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana are Midwest destinations worth a visit.
Hello! I am Porcshe Moran Murphy. For nearly two I've created print and and digital content for brands and organizations, cover food & wine, travel, home design, weddings, healthcare tech, business and more.