Welcome to Champaign-Urbana, the urban community located in the middle of nowhere. (Illinois is surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields.) Somehow, someway, this community has been fortunate enough to also be home to some of the best eats in the state. While the famous road on campus, Green Street, hosts many popular bars and restaurants it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what food and drinks this town has to offer.
With so many different options it’s hard to always know which place to choose, and even harder to agree on one with your friends. Behold, The Ultimate Student Guide to Eating and Drinking at The University of Illinois. Scroll through to find the perfect joint for every typical college scenario you will find yourself in while studying at U of I.
For the record, I also advise against missing any Saturday game block. Ever. And if you don’t know what this means yet, come to the first home game you sure as hell will.
1. When you’re craving munchies at 2 am: Wingin Out
U of I has some of the best late night food, no matter if you’re in the mood for Chinese or a warm fudge cookie. But when you’ve just had one of those nights, whether it’s that you had a few too many and need some substance in your stomach or you sent an embarrassing drunk text and need comfort food, there’s nothing like the greasy goodness that is Wingin Out. Beyond their extensive range of chicken wing sauces, they also offer dank sides like mac and cheese bites and specialty milkshakes.
What to Order: After a wild night out, stay away from their hotter wing sauces—like the Insane Buffalo—and stick to sides like fries or the mac and cheese bites. Otherwise you’ll wake up the next morning with an extreme stomach hangover. Yikes.
Location: 301 E Green Street Champaign IL 61820
2. When you’re in the mood for Mexican: Maize
If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll notice a long line every Saturday afternoon, just after block, on the corner of Green and First. That line is for Maize, the tiny Mexican restaurant that’s menu us full of authentic dishes that pack powerful flavor. This ain’t no Taco Bell, Maize is the real deal. From tacos to chips and quac they have it all. And not only does it taste great but it’s also very reasonably priced, which is a huge help to that college budget lifestyle.
Best Time to Go: A weekday for lunch or an early dinner. While it’s sometimes fun to be in the craze of Maize, if you’re #hangry and want your food ASAP, go during the off hours when it’s less busy.
Location: 60 E Green St, Champaign, IL 61820
3. When it’s date night: Seven Saints
You can’t go wrong with Seven Saints, whether it’s for a first date or an anniversary dinner. It has an upscale bar type of vibe with dark wooden furniture and a full range of new twists on classic bar foods like sliders and salads. If you’re 21, they also have a great selection of beers, wine and spirits.
Seven Saints is an off-campus restaurant in the heart of downtown Champaign, but if you or your date doesn’t have a car, don’t sweat it. You can take the free public bus with your Illini ID all the way to the Illinois Terminal stop and it’s right across the street. Plus, there’s now Uber on campus so your date can’t make excuses not to take you out on a fun night in the city (as much of a city as downtown Champaign is).
What to Order: Repeat after me: sliders. It can be a plate of 10 different types of sliders or just one as part of a combo platter but you have to try their sliders. Also, if you’re feeling frisky, order the cheese curds for an appetizer. They’re beyond amazing.
Location: 32 E Chester St, Champaign, IL 61820
4. When you want to watch the game: Joe’s Brewery
Right in the heart of campus, Joe’s epitomizes what college sports bars are all about. Good food, cheap drinks, and lots of TVs for you and your buddies to watch the game—because we all know you’re not actually going to attend a U of I sporting event.
When the whether is nice, there’s also a big outdoor space where the gang can play a round of bags. Plus, they just built a second story deck that is sure to be a hot spot this semester.
What to order: A lunchbox. Ahhhh nothing like a Joes lunchbox during a Cubs game on a Friday afternoon. These college staples are made with beer, orange juice, amaretto and a little bit of vodka. A truly wonderful cluster f*ck of a drink that Joes so graciously pours into huge buckets for an entire friend group to share…and share the second or third round too.
Location: 706 S 5th St, Champaign, IL 61820
5. When you or your friends don’t eat meat: The Red Herring
The Red Herring is one of the quaintest restaurants by campus. Located just a couple blocks off the Urbana side of the quad, The Red Herring offers a vegan and vegetarian menu from the apps to the desserts. They also have gluten free options as well as nutritional guides to promote smart and happy eating in the community.
The Coffeehouse: The Red Herring Coffeehouse is a long-standing performance venue right in the restaurant. Over the years it has hosted artists, musicians, poets and performers in an intimate show setting. If you’re looking for something new to do on campus, The Coffeehouse shows are definitely worth checking out.
Location: 1209 W Oregon St, Urbana, IL 61801
6. When your parents are visiting and paying the bill: Radio Maria
Oh tapas, the little shared plates that seem so cheap at first but slowly steal all your money. At a tapas restaurant, it’s almost too easy to rack up a huge bill by the end of the night after a third round of orders. And Radio Maria is no exception. Don’t get me wrong, the money is completely worth it, as Radio Maria not only offers savory and authentic tapas dishes but also brings a trendy, city-feel restaurant to this central Illinois town.
Where to Sit: Ask the hostess if you and your family can sit in the dining room to the right of the entrance. The entrance room on the left includes the restaurant’s bar and can get a little noisy when you’re trying to catch up with the ‘rents. On the other hand, if you sit next to the bar you can pretend you can’t hear your parents when they inevitably ask about your midterm grades.
Location: 119 N Walnut St, Champaign, IL 61820
7. When you’re craving something sweet: Insomnia Cookies
While Insomnia isn’t native to Champaign-Urbana it is a classic college bakery that is a must-try for every freshman. Whether you pick up cookies at 2 am after a night out or you order a warm gooey cookie cake for your BFF’s birthday, Insomnia is always a great choice to satiate a sweet tooth.
What to Order: Besides literally any one of their freshly baked cookies, try a cookie a la mode (AKA with ice cream). Sometimes the cookies alone can be a little too rich and having cool ice cream on top cuts the flavor and texture perfectly.
Location: Johnstowne Center, 502 E John St, Champaign, IL 61820
8. When you turn 21: Dos Reales
If you go to U of I, you know turning 21 doesn’t mean going to the bars for the first time; it means ordering drinks at restaurants for the first time. Thanks to some wacky Champaign-Urbana law, entrance to bars is legal at age 19 but drinking is still restricted to 21+.
Dos Reales, a Mexican restaurant a little bit off campus, is a fan favorite for all newly 21-year-olds to go to with their group of friends for a birthday celebration. Tacos and margaritas. What else could you need?
What to Order: Ooops, did I say margaritas? I meant a CoronaRita. This Dos Reales signature drink comes out in a huge margarita glass the size of your head and features two full bottles of corona stuck right in the middle. And you thought I’d send you somewhere just for an average margarita? Please.
Location: 1407 N Prospect Ave, Champaign, IL 61820
9. When you’re hungover: Merry Ann’s Diner
Merry Ann’s Diner is a legendary stop in the Champaign-Urbana community. It is an exemplary producer of greasy, fried, filling breakfast food. Besides the fact that their menu is pretty standard (and doesn’t include any unique specialty dishes), I’m surprised this place hasn’t been featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. This is the perfect place to go to after a night out when your stomach needs a substantial meal to soak up that gross flavored Burnett’s vodka.
#SpoonTip: If you’re looking for the real Merry Ann’s, head to the Neil Street location for the Champaign Original front.
Location(s): 1510 S. Neil St, Champaign, IL; 1 E. Main St, Champaign, IL; 701 S. Gregory St. Suite C., Urbana, IL
10. When you’re “doing it for the Insta”: Pandamonium Doughnuts Food Truck
Pandamonium Doughnuts serves up exactly what the name suggests: crazy, original doughnut flavors out of a food truck with a panda mascot. The owner, James Kyung, is a U of I grad who has completely changed the food scene in Champaign-Urbana.
Pandamonium Doughnuts bakes specialty gourmet doughnuts with seasonal flavors (as well as continued favorites) all made with local ingredients. Some notable flavors have been maple bacon, fruity pebble cereal, and Thin Mint—made with real Girl Scout cookies. All these creative creations full of popping colors and silky glazes are sure to rack up all the likes on Instagram.
Best Time to Go: ASAP. Pandamonium Doughnuts bakes their goodies in the wee hours of the night—or I guess, wee early morning—and stays open until they sell out. If you want to make sure all the flavors are still available for you to choose from get their as soon as they open in the morning.
Location: Visit their website for their changing schedule and locations.
11. When You Need Real Sushi: Sakanaya
Sushi is a trendy food that has never gone out of style (and never will). It’s like the #LBD of food porn. But when you’re in the heart of central Illinois, not to mention on a college campus, it can be hard to find trustworthy and tasty sushi.
Sakanaya is probably one of the most popular restaurants on campus and one of the few that isn’t a fast food joint. The fish tastes fresh and vibrant, and their specialty roles are very inventive and impressive. If you or your friends are tastebud weirdos who just can’t seem to get on the sushi boat, Sakanaya also offers a well-respected ramen menu.
What to Order: The Willis Tower. This insane creation stacks up sushi rice, avocado, crab meat, red tuna and tobiko all covered in spicy mayo and eel sauce. As it’s placed under the appetizer menu you could split it with friends, but after one bite I guarantee you’ll want the whole thing for yourself.
Location: 403 E Green St, Champaign, IL 61820
12. When you’re sick of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts: Espresso Royale
Unfortunately the U of I campus isn’t covered with cool, indie coffee shops. However, what we do have is a crazy amount of Espresso Royales. You’ve probably already heard of this place, but if not, they offer an extensive range of classic and specialty coffees and teas. While the prices aren’t lower than Starbucks, it definitely has a more laid back vibe and at the very least a lot more flavors of tea.
Where to Study: If you want to go to a café to study I recommend the Espresso Royale on East Daniel Street. That location has a cozy underground seating area that takes you away from the hustle and bustle of campus life.
Location(s): Undergraduate Library; 602 E Daniel St; 515 Gregory Dr; 1117 W Oregon St, Urbana, IL
13. When you’re in the mood for a slice (or three): Papa Del’s
This place is as Champaign-Urbana as a restaurant can get. New students and alumni alike can’t get over this 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. Perfect for a special dinner with your buddies or to order for pick up and eat in bed while you binge watch Netflix.
#SpoonTip: Papa Del’s overnight ships frozen pizza ANYWHERE. This makes a great present for alumni or for friends who went to college out of state and miss that good ol’ Chicago deep dish pizza.
Location: 1201 South Neil Street, Champaign, IL 61820