If you thought art was subjective, then come down the rabbit hole that is BEST Culture. Basically, we just take everything that doesn't really fit into any of the other categories and shove it all together. Trees, booze, schools, dogs, charities, Ron Paul ralliers: only Smile Politely has the cojones to pretend like there is some common thread here. And then we explain to you that some of these things are better than other things. But only because they are.

Best Neighborhood Bar My House

C-U has some nice neighborhood bars, no doubt. But the bar in My House has chairs that are always comfy, music that I like always playing on the stereo, and company that is always delightful.

At the bar in My House, the White Russians contain milk and half & half; the Bloody Marys are served with celery and lime and olives, and never contain too much Worcestershire Sauce; the limes in the gin and tonics are large and juicy, never those dry, tiny, shriveled pieces you get at most neighborhood bars.

At the bar in My House, robust, Argentinian Malbec doesn't cost $8 a glass. And ice is never added to the single malt Scotch without asking.

The bar at My House never closes, and no one blinks if I order a drink before 3:00 p.m. Everybody knows my name and they're always glad I came. Best neighborhood bar in C-U? My House. I'd tell you the address, but it’s pretty exclusive. Thus:

Best Neighborhood Bars — Honorable Mention

I have been to only four neighborhood bars in C-U: Office II, DR Diggers, Huber’s, and Icehouse. I had neither good times nor bad times at any of these establishments. Their beer selection is good; they serve various kinds of snacks (fried food; pizza); they have games and video poker. All four deserve honorable mention (Huber’s especially so for the friendly gentleman at the bar).

Neighborhood bars are places where an established clientele can go and visit with each other. We need them. They’re a public good. My spouse's favorite is The Blind Pig, which I don't think counts, but in his words, "It's residential; people live right above it." What's your favorite neighborhood bar? I am definitely open to recommendations. (TN)

Best Tree — Maple tree on the southeast corner of Bloomington and Prospect



Driving north on Prospect Ave from Kirby, you find yourself on one of the most beautiful tree-lined major thoroughfares in all of C-U. Trees hang out over the road and when spring is about to hit, their buds let you know that glorious shade is about to arrive. That is until you get to Judah Christian School. Then the street abruptly becomes a desolate tree desert, void of just about any attempts at green landscaping. You get to this part of town and it starts to feel like no one gives a shit about anything except shoving donuts, fried fish, booze, crappy Mexican, and gas at you while sucking out your money and your soul. Yes, there is a sapling or two on the west side of the street, but the east is totally empty until you get to the corner of  Bloomington and Prospect and come across what might be the world’s most unspectacular maple tree. Sure, it’s got a decent rounded crown, but when you get up close it does not appear to be doing all that well health-wise. There are definitely much more interesting trees in C-U, including the winding monster about a half mile south on Prospect in the Trevett-Fitch mini-park thing. But what makes this maple tree the best is what it represents: a beacon of hope after the most poorly planned half-mile business district in all of C-U. It’s the soldier that’s holding sentinel and waiting for reinforcements. As C-U’s best tweeter recently shared, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now. ~Chinese Proverb” (JAS)
 

Best Charity — Salt and Light

Ye are the salt of the earth … Ye are the light of the world (Matthew 5:13–14, KJV)

It’s tough to pick a “best” when it comes to charities. They’re all wonderful. Holding up one above all of the others isn’t necessarily what I’m doing here, or what I want to do (it's probably not something they want me to do either). The purpose of this entry is to shine a light on one particular charity in C-U that I’m especially impressed by.

As I was researching local charities for this article, I ran across Salt and Light, and I realized that I didn’t know much about them, other than their connection to the East Illinois Food Bank (which I also don’t know much about). So I found their website and began looking around.

Salt and Light has been in service to our community since 2004, and their greatest priority is providing food and clothing to those in need. They have an amazing agreement with the East Illinois Food Bank that allows them to purchase food at a tenth of its normal cost. Additionally, through their Clothing Closet, they help to clothe thousands of families in need each year. But their services don’t stop there:

  • Salt and Light also provides school supplies, Christmas gifts, and furniture to families in need.
  • They provide financial advice and education through their Financial Peace University program. This program charges for its advice, but at Salt and Light, people struggling with their finances and debt are given advice on how to “budget their expenses, plan for emergencies and establish a financial future,” all free of charge.
  • Salt and Light provides free personal and financial counseling, including “parenting, coping, marriage and employment-related skills … foreclosure, bankruptcy, and financial judgments.”

Salt and Light is, of course, a Christian charity. They share "the love of God by helping those in need." However, their website does not say that recipients of all of this goodwill must be Christians, and in an article about the charity written last year, Vern Fein (who would know) said that there are “no strings attached."

There is also a statement on their volunteer page that says they are looking for people with “high moral standards.” Applying that term to myself, I’m not sure I’d meet their standards, but Salt and Light sure meets mine. (TN)
 

Best Local Twitter Account Tom Bruno
Twitter is at its best when it’s giving you real time updates of events that matter. Or when it’s passing along meaningless trivia that you never knew you cared about. And no one in Champaign-Urbana does that better than Champaign City Councilman Tom Bruno. Want to know what topics are being discussed at just about any City Council meeting? Bruno is your man. Want to know about the worldwide ginger ale monopoly that no one is talking about? Bruno is also your man. Indulge him while he recounts his recent trip to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, because you’ll soon find out that “Food coloring ‘Natural Red 4’ is carminic acid, obtained from body & eggs of the insect Dactylopius coccus that lives on cacti in S America.” And that "Floccinaucinihilipilification” is the longest non-technical word in English, it's 'the act of estimating something as worthless'.”

And perhaps the biggest testament to the man’s Twitter account is that it’s satire proof. At one point, we were considering doing an April Fool’s Tribute by pretending to tweet as Mr. Bruno. But after attempting a few fake ones, we realized there was no point messing with the best. You can’t mock this: “35 minutes into the council meeting, the public has lined up at microphone for public comments. This is local government at its best.” (JAS)
 

Best Place to Watch People — Political Rallies

More specifically, a Ron Paul political rally.

I attended Ron Paul's visit this year, and I don't remember the last time I had such fun people watching. And it's not because I was surrounded by weirdos. That was the Rick Santorum rally. No, what made it interesting for me was that, with one obvious exception (which you discern from my photos), the crowd was refreshingly diverse. There were old people and young. I saw local businessmen and working class folks from Effingham. There were guys wearing fraternity t-shirts and girls wearing rainbow bracelets. There were tough looking veterans (I'm assuming) holding signs that made excellent points and kids in suits taking themselves much too seriously.


Hell yes! I'm on your side, sir! About this anyway.


As they walked along, they made condescending comments about those in line. Without irony.

As we stood in line, strangers began making small talk. I met a young man who works for a company that cleans out and repairs homes that have been repossessed. But he said that he didn't like his job because his boss showed favoritism and treated people unfairly. I thought to myself that a union might solve that issue, but didn't say it out loud.

I also met an older gentleman who works for a small press that publishes textbooks for parents who home-school. It was only then that the irony of this particular rally taking place in a publicly-funded university dawned on me.

Inside, the occasional "hot" girl walked around in circles on the floor, holding up pro-Paul signs and encouraging everyone in the stands to cheer, which they did. There were some guys sitting behind me who talked loudly about their support for Obama and how much they disagreed with Paul. I wondered if they were hoping for an engaging political debate (or hostile confrontation). But that wasn't going to happen. The Paul supporters were in too much of a good mood. And why shouldn't they be? Over 4,000 people showed up for this event.

I highly recommend attending political rallies, no matter your ideology. You’ll learn quite a bit about your fellow citizens. And you’ll be better able to discern whom to fear and whom to take in stride. (TN)

Best Local Newscaster Dave Benton
Duh.

(JAS and MC)


Best Dog — Bubba


Such a good dog.

Just look at this dog. Is there a more perfect dog in C-U? Shut up, no there isn’t. I’m sure your dog is great. Really. But does it have a Twitter account? I think not. I think not.

Bubba’s owners are Caleb and Sarah Curtiss, two of the luckiest people in the world. They adopted Bubba when his previous owner died. So, Bubba comes from, as Caleb so touchingly put it, "a place of deep, deep sorrow." Which just draws us more easily and willingly to this noble, benevolent canine.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bubba at a party recently at somewhere-given-by-some-people-whom-I-can’t-now-recall-it-doesn’t-matter-who-cares Bubba was there. This gorgeous, majestic beast held court, Scarlett O’Hara-like, while we all took turns admiring, petting, and murmuring, “Good dog. What a good dog. That’s right, you’re a good dog.” When asked his favorite things to do, Bubba replied with his usual profundity, "Go outsides Get the belly rubz Eat some foods Lick the waters More belly rubz." 

I won’t soon forget that day. It certainly changed me for the better. We were all changed on that day. The day we first meet Bubba. (TN)
 

Best Local Turnaround  From Culver to Wiegand: Champaign Schools Superintendent
There have been quite a few positive turns for the city of Champaign over the last twelve months. New mayor Don Gerard has been mostly impressive, making us all feel like lazy do-nothings while fulfilling his biggest campaign promise by acting as the city’s biggest cheerleader. And new police chief Anthony Cobb has gotten off to a quiet start, which is exactly what you want from a police chief in this town. But the best turnaround happened at the Champaign Public schools when the school board hired Judy Wiegand as their superintendent.

This turnaround was really a two-fold process, beginning when Dr. Robert Malito became Interim Superintendent. Malito came in and immediately raised expectations in the greater community by networking with community stake-holders while working closely with Wiegand in her Assistant Superintendent position. When she was hired by the school board earlier this year, Wiegand quickly rose to the occasion, rallying in her first few months against what many perceived as her biggest weakness: her shyness.

Her "Supper With The Super" events, inspired by Melodye Rosales, have quickly turned into meaningful community outreach. The most recent event, held at Booker T Washington Elementary, attracted hundreds of community members and was ultimately a collaboration with the city, Champaign Police Department, Urbana Police Department, and various community organizers. It was preceded by a neighborhood walk wherein city and district officials knocked on doors to discuss the current state of the district.

She's filled her administration with in-district hires and has managed to get a better value for her hires than her predecessor. She's also gotten behind a new grading policy at the high school level that challenges students to show their understanding of a given subject as opposed to collecting points. It’s much too early in Wiegand’s tenure to call this hire a long-term victory, but it is assuredly a short-term game changer for the children of Champaign’s public schools. (JAS and CDC)

Best Liquor Store — Binny’s Beverage Depot

When I chose to write about this category, I admit that the first liquor store that came to my mind was Friar Tuck. But that store is located in Savoy (gasp! Does Joe Snell know?!). I also didn’t consider Cork Screw, Wines at the Pines, or Sun Singer because those three wonderful businesses are much more than simply liquor stores. That left, for me, the new kid on the block: Binny’s.

Binny’s isn’t necessarily local only to C-U; but they’re quasi-local — based in Chicago, with 28 stores all over north Illinois. They opened their store in Champaign last February in the space where Borders Books used to be.

I admit that I wasn’t all that eager to visit Binny’s when they first opened. A liquor warehouse (or depot) appealed to me about as much as driving on North Prospect did — not at all. But my friend wanted to check the place out, so I sucked it up. And walking through the entrance changed my attitude immediately. The store is well-lit, clean, and the selection is like nothing else we have in C-U.


A lush’s paradise

There are shelves and shelves of beers: craft, imported, and domestic.


Binny's sells gins, bourbons, vodkas, and whiskeys that I’ve never heard of. And all the mixers a girl could ask for.

 

The wine selection alone is reason enough to visit. And yes, there’s a humidor. Why? Perhaps for Scotch lovers?

During my visit to Binny’s, as I wandered around the store aimlessly, I was asked no less than three times if I needed help. I declined because I was there to simply check the place out, so I can’t speak for the staff’s knowledge of their product, but they sure weren’t shy about offering, which is a good sign.

I highly recommend Binny’s Beverage Depot, and not by default either. It is, hands down, the best liquor store in C-U. It’s not purely local, but it’s a magical, magical place. (TN)

Location: 802 Town Center Blvd.
Hours: Monday–Saturday: 9:00–10:00
           Sunday: 10:00–6:00
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All photos by Amy Sullivan, and this is her favorite vodka.

 

Best Kid Thing Storytime at the libraries
When I’m on my death bed and look back at my life, one of the contenders for best year of my life will undoubtedly be the year I got to spend my days wandering through C-U with my two-year-old daughter. Of course, the farther I get from that time, the sweeter it seems. But that's the beauty of having children. The stark reality when you’re trapped inside with a two-year old all the time is that you both want to get out and do things. So we explored the town and both tried to find as many ways to LIVE as possible. In this respect, Chambanamoms.com can be a great resource, but their content mostly makes a father feel like a hip-hop fan reading Smile Politely. So we mostly did things our own way, which meant lots of trips to the coffee shop, lots of trips to Exile on Main and many, many brave trips to the mall for failed attempts to ride a horse on the carousel.

By far, the best typical weekly activity for both of us was to head to the Champaign and Urbana libraries for toddler story time. The setup is pretty simple: the librarians read a book, the kids do some dancing, there's some forced social interaction, then the kids get to rummage among the books and stuff giant legos in their pants. The staff in both children’s sections is top notch, never making you feel like your kid shouldn’t be a kid. And by this I mean they can run up and down every aisle grabbing books. All the librarians at both places were nothing but sweet to every kid. (Unless they found out a kid was from Savoy, then things got real.)

As a bonus, these trips gave me plenty of time to get caught up in the so-called mommy wars. Just in case you’re wondering, everything I do as a parent is terrible. Except taking them to the library. That’s always a good thing. (JAS)

This section compiled by Tracy Nectoux and John Steinbacher.