When making plans for a date night, the idea of dinner and a movie is always an option that is thrown on the table. If you’re in the habit of choosing Red Lobster and the latest blockbuster release at the Carmike AMC and you’re looking for something a little different then I encourage you to check out your local options in downtown Champaign. The Virginia Theater and the Art Theater Co-op are both fantastic places to take in a movie. Long standing (and I do mean long standing!) favorites, these movie houses offer up a very different vibe from one another, but the staff and service you’ll get at either one will both be top notch! 

For our dinner and a movie date, we chose to dine at Peking Garden and take in a movie at The Virginia Theater. Both are very close to one another so it’s a nice park once and walk situation. When we’re in the mood for Mandarin/Sichuan style cuisine, Peking Garden is one of our favorites. It boasts a casual atmosphere, lengthy menu, affordable prices, filling portions, and tiki drinks! Need I say more? I can already tell you a few of our go-to favorites from the menu that are sure bets to satisfy your taste buds: the black pepper chicken (not as spicy as you might expect, I think it’s perfect and it’s a fan favorite as well), they do a very good General Tso’s which my husband loves, the chicken with mushrooms is one of my favorite comfort foods (the brown sauce is perfection with this one), and the vegetable lo mein is another go-to for my husband.

For this meal we ordered crab Rangoon for our appetizer (6 for $5.25). I chose to try something new and went with home style tofu in a hot garlic sauce ($9.95) and my husband chose combination lo mein ($9.95). The crab Rangoon was just as expected. Six very hot little Rangoons were served to us first along with a sweet and sour sauce. I definitely burnt the roof of my mouth because I couldn’t wait to eat them…..this happens often with me though. Try to contain yourself and set a couple aside for a little sweetness to end your meal.

The home style tofu was served with large chunks of marinated tofu and an assortment of veggies like carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, water chestnuts, snow peas and bamboo shoots that were served with a side of white rice. I’m always a little nervous when I see the little hot pepper symbol next to the menu item as every restaurant is a little different. I didn’t find this too spicy at all. Other folks, like my husband, might want to inquire for some more heat if that’s what you’re into. I’m actually not sure if they accommodate different levels of heat here, but it never hurts to ask!  The veggies were cooked perfect, having a really nice crunch to counter act the softer tofu. I thought the tofu was cooked pretty well too. It had a harder, crisp layer around the outside from being marinated and pan fried and the center stayed very soft. The thick, brown sauce was wonderful, the more garlic the better I say, with a very tolerable amount of heat. I’d say it’s comparable to a level “2” that I’ve had other places.

My husband ordered the combination lo mein and asked for some extra spiciness to be added to it (though he didn’t find it very spicy at all). Combination refers to the variety of meats that are added: shrimp, chicken, pork, and beef. Light on the veggies and heavy on the noodles, it was very tasty. I have never been a fan of lo mein, but after trying a bite (or two) of his I wanted to switch! It had such a good flavor and I loved the addition of the perfectly cooked shrimp. It was a tad greasy, which I think is good for a lo mein, and the noodles weren’t overcooked. I think the addition of a variety of meats gave it a lot more flavor than any of the other standards and that flavor is what really grabbed my attention. It was more complex. And, sadly, there were no leftovers of the lo mein.

Since we were trying to stay in the $50 or less range, we opted out of ordering alcoholic drinks but their drink menu looked great. There are lots of tiki drinks available to order that also come in fun tiki mugs! Apart from the sharable ones they all average $6.95; I think that’s a fantastic price. Our dinner total with tax and tip came to $34.40.

The Virginia Theater and The Art Theater both have their movie schedules posted on their websites and are very active on Facebook. Both also have great concession stands and we saved a wee bit of room for popcorn. Tickets at The Virginia were $5 a piece, that added $10 more to our tab for the night ($44.40). And since we were pretty full from dinner we opted to just share a small popcorn/small drink combo ($5). This was a close one, but we made it — $49.40! We had such a great time. If you’re lucky enough to go to a show at The Virginia when the organ is playing, it is such a treat! We saw Duck Soup starring the Marx Brothers and the organist played for 30 minutes before the show started. And where else in town can you pay five bucks for a movie and sit in a beautifully renovated vaudeville theater? If you’ve never been to The Virginia Theater, or are just interested in learning more about the building, you can inquire about their free tours. I also love that $1 from each ticket sold goes towards the Virginia Theater Restoration Fund.

There are so many different restaurants in downtown Champaign than can fit into this $50 or less movie/dinner date night experience and all are in walking distance of the theaters. Get a salad or sandwich or maybe just split an appetizer at Hamilton Walkers or Destihl. Watson’s Shack and Rail has plenty of delicious and affordable menu items to choose from. Split a classic Neapolitan pizza at Pizzeria Antica. Grab some delicious burgers at Guido’s or Farren’s. I love the variety of options downtown.

Peking Garden is located at 206 North Randolph Street, Champaign. Hours are Monday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The Virginia Theater is located at 203 West Park Avenue, Champaign. Box office hours are weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and two hours before every show.

All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake.