I love going out to eat. It's my favorite date night or hanging out with friends activity. Maybe it’s the whole not having to do dishes thing, or just my sheer love of food and drinks made by talented people, but I also love the overall atmosphere and experience of a restaurant.


Throughout the spring, we switched to delivery and curbside with the rest of the country, and that continues to be our most frequent way of supporting our C-U area restaurants. We have ventured out a few times to scratch that dining out itch, all while weighing the risks of doing so. When Illinois moved to Phase 3 at the end of May, allowing restaurants to have outdoor dining, we didn’t rush out right away. I wanted time to assess the situation and see how each establishment was interpreting “distance” and “safety.” Since then, we’ve visited a handful of patios. 

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that everyone has to assess risk for themselves. In my household, we will not eat indoors right now. In yours, you may not even want to risk interacting with others to do take out. This is merely what I’ve experienced and observed, not a recommendation to extend beyond your comfort zone, especially if you are high risk or live with someone who is.

That said, when my spouse and I have dined out this summer and fall, we’ve paid attention to the size of the patio or outdoor dining area, mask enforcement for employees and customers when they aren’t seated, how spaced the tables are, and the day of the week/time of day. We also avoided Friday and Saturday nights. Here are five places we tried and had a comfortable dining experience.

A spinach salad in a large white bowl, topped with shredded cheese, thinly sliced pears, and toasted brown pine nuts. It sits on a dark gray table. Photo by Julie McClure.Photo by Julie McClure.

Nando Milano

This was the first place we tried, back in June. We went on a Wednesday evening and sat at a two top table along the sidewalk where we felt far enough away from other diners. I may have been a little more uncomfortable had we been placed on the patio adjacent to the restaurant, especially if it was full, but our spot was perfect. I generally love outdoor dining at Nando. It’s a great spot for people watching (even if there are fewer out and about), and on a temperate evening with their playlist of classics in the background with a glass of wine in hand, it’s downright dreamy. It was a nice “what pandemic?” hour. Also, can we talk about how good their spinach salad is? On the menu it's Spinaci e Pere del Giardino. Topped with pears, pine nuts, and pecorino; it's marvelous.

Nando Milano
204 N Neil
Champaign
M-Th 5 to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 5 to 10 p.m.
Su 4 to 9 p.m.

Close up of an open faced cheeseburger, with the top bun adjacent to the rest of the sandwich. A pile of thin french fries are next to it, and they sit in a container with a red and white check paper underneath. Photo from Farren's facebook page. Photo from Farren's Facebook page. 

Farren’s

Farren’s has been all around stellar as a community cheerleader from the very beginning of the pandemic, and they’ve been equally stellar at adapting to their circumstances. They created an outdoor dining experience that demonstrated just how seriously they are taking all of this (even forgoing indoor dining throughout the summer) and how much concern they have for their customers and employees. They had an outdoor host stand where you gave your number for contact tracing and nicely distanced tables. As we sat down, there was a sign indicating that the table had been sanitized, and the food came out in disposable containers. They've since switched over to regular dishes. I'm cool with any vehicle that will bring my burger to me.

Farren's Pub
117 N Walnut
Champaign
Su-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
 

A close up of a pint glass filled with cherry red cider. It sits on a black metal table, a street and line of businesses across the street are in the background. Photo by Julie McClure.Photo by Julie McClure.

Crane Alley

Crane Alley has a couple of tables set up in front of the restaurant, as well as several in “the alley.” The night we visited, there were a few too many tables filled up in the alley, so we asked the hostess if we could snag an open table out front that was not at all close to the one next to it. While I love dining in the alley, we felt like we could relax a bit more this way. Bonus: it was a beautiful night, and we got to watch the sunset over Main Street. Crane Alley has done away with menus and has a QR code on each table, so you can pull it up on your phone. They’ve reduced their menu options, eliminating most of their entrees, but thankfully pretzel bites are still on the appetizer menu. They are still doing burger specials and have many of my other Crane Alley favorites.

Crane Alley
115 W Main St
Urbana
T-Su 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Two cocktails sit on a silver table. One is in a martini glass with a thin stem, filled with clear liquid and a lemon peel. The other is in a rocks glass with brown liquid. A street and row of businesses are in the background. Photo by Julie McClure.Photo by Julie McClure.

Hamilton Walker’s

My spouse and I have serious love for the steakhouse burger at HW, as well as their cocktails. Early on in the pandemic, before establishing their curbside take out system, HW sold their meat cuts online, and we jumped at the chance to grill up their burgers on our deck. Still delicious. During our other passes through downtown, we decided we felt comfortable with their distanced sidewalk dining and headed out to have them cook up our burger and bring us our favorite cocktails. (Side note: you can also order bottles of a few cocktails to go). I went with a Suffragette, for no reason whatsoever. They take reservations, and though I did go inside to check in when we arrived, I would imagine they would be fine with you calling and saying “we’re here” if you are not down with entering the building.

Hamilton Walker's
201 N Neil St
Champaign
W + Th 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
F + Sa 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
 

A look from above at an assortment of food and drinks on a black metal table. Photo by Jessica Hammie.Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Maize

This is the one spot we took our whole family this summer. We love sitting outside at Maize, even with the occasional train that rumbles by. Their spacious patio allowed for a comfortable distance between tables. Even after they added indoor seating, they kept an outdoor host stand for outdoor diners, so that they could go straight to their table. My spouse is borderline obsessed with the steak burrito at Maize, so we’ve ordered our fair share of take out, but I enjoyed adding one of their margaritas to my meal because they are really just wonderful. 

Maize at The Station
100 N Chestnut St
Champaign
M-Sa 2 to 10 p.m.
Su 2 to 9 p.m.

*****

The weather is turning colder, and it will be time for restaurants to pivot yet again. I’ve seen some giant heaters begin to appear, and I’m hoping that means that some establishments will try to keep some outdoor dining going as long as possible. If they do (and Champaign County maintains a reasonable positivity rate), I will bundle myself up and head out again. We will continue to make up the difference by ordering curbside and delivery way more than we should.

Top photo from Farren's Facebook page.