Upon learning that Champaign-Urbana would finally be home to an Irish restaurant (sorry — Murphy's doesn't count, and you know it), I felt both excited and uneasy. Excited, because I've been craving this for years and years; any chance I get when traveling anywhere, I am through the doors of a McFlanagan's or The Curragh or something about Irish Brothers or whatever.
I love Irish food, in particular, because it's just about as close to Southern-style comfort food as it gets through a European lens. Of course, stylistically, there are differences, but ultimately, they are one and the same, conceptually. Fried fish, hearty stews, huge no-holds-barred breakfasts, emphasis on meats, and a great deal of love. And perhaps a more thorough examination of the cultural history might make for an interesting case study or dissertation, but we should all know enough to know that both cultures suffered through some pretty deep years of oppression, and arguably, are still today. Evidently, at the least, it makes for one hell of a culinary tradition.
But I was uneasy because I was afraid it simply wasn't going to be executed properly. When I discovered that Amit Chopra, a partner in Green St. Cafe — one of the more seedy and baffling bars on campus, and in all of C-U, really — would be the proprietor, I kinda scratched my head. And when I was told that the kitchen would be shared with another restaurant next door, I will admit right now, I didn't hold out much hope. Truthfully, I kind of wrote it off, so that when the time came, I didn't have to be disappointed.
So, it's with great delight and much humility that both myself, and most of the rest of the Editors at Smile Politely, can report to you that Dublin O'Neil's is actually quite good. And then some, honestly.
The menu is pretty well rounded for traditional Irish fare. Executive chef Josh Huddleston has evidently put in the work to make each item to certain standards, and it showed in almost all of the meals that we were served last week. The only thing that was glaring for me was the absence of a Guinness Stew of some kind. I was hoping for that, but this place is new, and my guess is that they will grow into themselves over the course of the next year; playing around with what works and what won't.
And to quell any fears or sense of disillusion that you might have about the restaurant sharing its kitchen with another restaurant, here's what's what: 1) Amit owns the other as well, called Mongolia 301 (opening very soon we hear), and 2) it's a Mongolian Stir-fry, so it's "hot side" of the kitchen will take place in the front of house (like Flat Top, for a local reference). Actually quite brilliant, if you think it through.
Both the owner, Amit, and Josh, the chef, came out, greeted the table warmly, and were obviously very elated to be where they were.
So, in our excitement and fear, we decided to go as a group, and review it as such, ordering as many items as we possibly could. Granted, this was literally opening night, so whatever is written below, please take that into account.
— Seth Fein
Chicken Pot Pie:
At first I thought the chicken pot pie was a little soupy. I actually asked the waitress because I usually think of chicken pot pie as creamy. However she said that's how they serve it and she brought me a spoon which made me feel slightly less like an asshole for saying something. As it cooled down it did get a little creamier, and the puff pastry crust soaked up some of the soupiness. Overall the flavor was rich and comforting. It was a good reward for resisting the frozen variety that have been calling my name at Aldi.
— Sarah Curtiss
Fish N' Chips:
I hardly qualify to criticize food, but fish & chips is Motörhead. Either it's great or it's terrible, and it doesn't care what you think. Thankfully, this time it was great. The huge pile of haddock had no Midwest fish stink or coagulating grease puddles — welcome surprises, but subject to further research as it was opening night. The fries underneath were extra potato-y (again, opening night) but otherwise American. The spiced-up tartar sauce seemed out of place for a dish that takes pride in its normalcy, but irrelevant with half a fresh lemon doing its job.
Overall: really good, and not just "...for the Midwest." Considering that local alternatives probably involve cardboard pirate hats: excellent. And considering the kitchen is open until 2 a.m.: a necessary utility.
— Tim Adamson
Fish and chips with malt vinegar and lots of lemons is one dish I can't refuse. When brought to the table, my basket was full of huge pieces of crispy, breaded, tender, flaky filets of haddock and fresh cut french fries. The thought of coming home from a late show and stopping in at Dublin O'Neil's at one thirty in the morning excites me.
— Justine Bursoni
Full Irish Breakfast:
Nothing pleases me more than waking up, still drunk, and shoving black pudding, white pudding, rashers, link sausage, fried eggs, potatoes, and grilled tomatoes into my stomach. Seriously. And literally. This is the kind of breakfast that just takes your day and turns it on its head. For better or for worse. And despite the fact that my black pudding (that's a blood-based sausage, in case you were wondering) was fairly inedible due to its dryness (a huge bummer for me — please use less grain, or filler), the rest of the meal was very well prepared. Bonus points: the whole thing costs $7.95. Double HUGE bonus points: they serve it ALL day. Three cheers in a pint of Guinness to Dublin O'Neil's for bringing that to a menu in Champaign!
— Seth Fein
Bangers N' Mash:
The bangers and mash was hearty and satisfying. The sausages were braised in Guinness and cooked perfectly. They weren't too greasy and I found myself enjoying them, even though I generally don't go out of my way to eat sausage. My favorite part of the dish was the mashed potatoes. The addition of kale provided a crunchy texture that added a nice counterpart to the creaminess of the potatoes. The cabbage was also quite good; it was thickly shredded and fresh. The dish as a whole felt substantial and I'd definitely order it again.
— Jeremiah Stanley
Dublin O'Neil's has the best Smithwick's 20-oz draft that I've ever had in Champaign-Urbana.
— Joel Gillespie (left early to eat fish tacos made by his girlfriend. Whatever, brah.)
*Editor's note: None of those humans above are Joel Gillespie. Like we said, he left.
Corned Beef and Cabbage:
Except for the corned beef, I really liked this dish. The potatoes were well-cooked, and the cabbage was excellent, as was the horseradish sauce it was served with. The corned beef was bizzarely shaved deli-style, and got lost under the flavor of the horseradish. I thought the potato pancake appetizer was much more satisfying than the main course. The desserts saved the meal for me, especially the toffee cake, which really worked with the addition of some orange.
— Ben Valocchi
Potato Pancakes with Smoked Salmon:
Sticky Toffee Cake:
Braised Short Ribs:
I don't often order this item, as I prefer different cuts of meat, but the short ribs were quite good. In the parlance of the food writing community, they were fall-off-the-bone tender and had just the right amount of pink on the inside. The Guinness-based sauce worked well. It was not as heavy as I expected and the subtlety helped the dish overall. The red cabbage was nice. Places have a tendency to make red cabbage too sweet. Not here. I had a Guinness, but I actually prefer Murphy's Irish Stout which was not on the menu. Heresy.
— John Steinbacher
I'd put Dublin O'Neil's burger up against any in town — with the possible exception of Timpone's. This 1/2 pound burger is stacked with Irish cheddar, a thick slice of Old World-style bacon, and fried onions. It's then served on a perfectly buttered and toasted bun (crispy, singed edges) with curried ketchup. And not too much curry, just a hint at the corner of your tastebuds. The fries are obviously fresh-cut and naked other than salt. Ready for a healthy dose of malt vinegar.
Constructive criticism: Don't pack it quite so tight and cook "medium" a touch less.
Also, Dublin's had a decent selection of beers on tap. But what really caught my eye was the price list. If a British pint (20 oz) cost $6, a half-pint cost $3. If a pint cost $5, a half-pint cost $2.50. You get the idea. A small thing maybe, but it won me over.
Downtown Champaign is veering sharply toward the upper-middle-brow-urban, but this was a welcome surprise.
— Robert Hirschfeld
When I ordered the Shepherd's Pie at Dublin O'Neil's this last Monday, it marked the end of summer for me. It was raining, dark and cold out, and I was half a pint of Guinness into my evening. Sure, I could have ordered fish and chips, but then, why deny the looming sense of dread that is Autumn? My choice turned out to be the perfect accompaniment for the dark days of Fall: the tender braised lamb didn't put up too much of a fight while the baked crust of potatoes that encased said lamb kept the dish from becoming a big ball of delicious mush. If I make it to Spring, it'll be the result of comfort food like this.
— Caleb Curtiss
All photos by Justine Bursoni except crowd shot by Seth Fein