Champaign-Urbana: More than meets the eye
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - College towns in general are known for unique atmospheres, vibrant youth and, yes, numerous drinking and eating establishments.
This goes quadruple for Big Ten Conference towns, where student bodies numbering in the range of 40,000, along with associated faculty and employees, create rich cultural, culinary and diversionary diversity.
The "Twin Cities" of Urbana-Champaign are no exception. Sure, there was a time when the reputation as a sleepy cow-town surrounded by cornfields was perhaps justified. But today, the home of the Fighting Illini is experiencing a renaissance. New, upscale bars and restaurants are opening all around the area, bringing with them libations and victuals guaranteed to appeal to the tastes of academics, scholars and, fortunately for us, golfers alike.
The university is the cultural center of Champaign-Urbana and at the heart of the campus are the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (krannertcenter.com), the Krannert Art Museum (art.uiuc.edu/galleries/kam/) and Assembly Hall (uofiassemblyhall.com/). From Broadway touring shows to rock concerts to Chinese acrobats to mixed media art exhibits, the culture buff can find the quality - if not the quantity - of entertainment one would expect in larger metropolitan areas.
If you really want to get away from it all, one of the most unique attractions in the area are the hot-air balloon rides offered by Byron Denhart, owner and pilot of The Chief hot-air balloon ((217) 328-1314). Given the gusty winds in Champaign, you'll need some flexibility in scheduling, but the endless views of the Great Plains are well worth the effort.
For shopping, the North Prospect avenue area contains most of the larger chain retailers and the Marketplace Mall on North Neil Street not only has plenty of fine shops but also a large, vintage carousel that kids absolutely adore. For those who can't stomach retail prices, a 20-minute drive south of town on I-57 will take you to Tuscola, where The Tanger Outlet Mall awaits the budget-conscious.
The recent TV poker craze has inspired a weekly Texas Hold 'em tournament at the Hooters of Champaign (1706 S. State St., (217) 355-7682). The best part is that entering the tournament is free. Players each receive a hypothetical $300 in chips and play for chances at prizes, without risking any of their own dough. I understand the servers are easy on the eyes as well.
Finally, for those who prefer their off-course entertainment to be a bit off-color, The Silver Bullet (1401 E. Washington, Urbana) and Malibu Bay Lounge (Rt. 45 N, Urbana) might just have what you're looking for. I believe it was the Beach Boys who sang that Midwest girls really make you feel all right.
Places to Eat
Hmm … a university town, huh? Think there might be any place to get a beer?
As luck may have it, there is indeed a place - and a lot more. If you're feeling younger than you look at the end of a day on the links, "Campus Town" is the place to observe the local youth in their natural habitat, spending their student loan money on refreshments and fun. The best place in Campus Town is Murphy's Pub on Green Street. The burgers are famous and the Absolute and Jim Beam drink specials on weekdays are unbeatable.
If you would rather avoid the hubbub of campus, downtown Champaign is literally exploding with unique eating and dining establishments. Bacaro (113 N. Walnut, (217) 398-6982) offers chic haute cuisine and both the menu and wine list will transport you off the plains. Owner Thad Morrow, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is also the chef. The menu, which changes four times a year with the seasons, represents a dazzling array of ingredients from both Illinois and abroad.
For a big-city atmosphere and a huge selection of martinis, try Boltini Lounge (211 N. Neil). From the moment you reach for the door handle and realize it's fashioned from a baby-doll's leg, you know you're in for something utterly unexpected, yet so very welcome in C-U.
For the complete opposite atmosphere, head to The Blind Pig across the street from Bacaro. Owner Chris Knight has installed a 110-year-old mahogany bar from Maryville, Ill., and, perhaps, the only true hand-pull tap of cask-conditioned ale from here to the Map Room in Chicago. According to Knight, "This is a beer bar" and true aficionados - or "beer fiends," as Knight lovingly refers to them - will find something to suit any palate. The ambience is a refreshing change, too: no TVs and the distinct feel of a pub in County Cork.
Not to be outdone, Urbana offers several notable restaurants as well. Crane Alley (115 W. Main St., Urbana, (217) 384-7526) has a hip menu and hipper atmosphere, along with an 80-seat beer garden.
On the north side of Champaign, in the vicinity of North Prospect Ave., you'll find all the well-known chain restaurants and steak houses, along with all the crap they inexplicably nail on their walls.
Places to stay
The university draws visitors by the busload, so there are plenty of hotels in the area. One of our favorites is the Drury Inn ((217) 398-0030) just off I-74 on N. Prospect Ave. in Champaign. It features free Internet access and an indoor pool.
For a complete list of recommended hotels in Champaign County, contact the Chamber of Commerce ((217) 359-1791).
And no, a cow won't answer the phone. There's more here than meets the eye and the reputation.
May 12, 2005