Welcome to a new year, for a new you… just to face the same old problem: what and where to eat for lunch? This time I take you to Downtown Champaign to answer that question. Full disclosure: (ahem, Marty) I was neither directed, persuaded, nor otherwise pressured by any person or entity, to include or exclude any establishment based on their monetary contributions, advertisement contracts, or personal relationships. The opinions set forth are mine, and mine alone; directed, persuaded, and pressured only by my desire to eat. Also, if you will be incensed by the absence of Lil Porgy’s please proceed directly to the comment section to voice your rage. Furthermore, there are more than five locations in Champaign to eat lunch; as such, this is not an exhaustive list nor a denunciation of those establishments not included.

To reiterate: My intention is to provide information to would-be lunch goers regarding parking, time, and money involved in hopes that they can subconsciously be aware of options when facing the dreaded question posed above. Wait times and customer traffic can vary wildly due to other local events, weather, holidays, etc. Meal prices vary depending on, wait for it… how much you order. To avoid any other appearance of impropriety, I will organize this list from east to west in order to only offend the geographically sensitive.

Maize

I was so happy when Maize announced their plan to open a second location in the old train station. In fact, I tried to have my rehearsal dinner there but alas, it wasn’t ready in time. There is almost nothing better, as far as table food goes, than fresh house-made chips and salsa, and at Maize they don’t disappoint. The menu is pretty straight-forward and simple, covering all the usual bases for Mexican fare. I find the smaller menu allows them to concentrate more on quality, and me to make a decision more quickly. I had chalupas ($6.50), my friend had a giant burrito ($7), and since we had to use up a gift certificate we added the guacamole ($7.50). The ingredients were fresh and well put together. The guacamole was outstanding; I highly recommend it. There are plenty of menu options in the sub ten-dollar range. The dining room has plenty of room and service was very quick. There are metered spots in the MTD lot across University Ave, along Chestnut St, and a parking lot behind the building so motorist and pedestrians should have no issues.

Maize
100 N Chestnut St, Champaign
Open daily 11 a.m to 9 p.m.

Seven Saints

I’ll be honest, when Seven Saints is mentioned as a food or fun option, I say yes 95% of the time. The other 5% includes times I’m near death with the flu, or simply out of town. They have an astounding whiskey selection and great bar tenders to boot. But, back to lunch… This place offers some great variety for lunch seekers, and a flexible combo menu, too. Options include numerous slider varieties, salads, soups, and sides combined in two-choice platters ($7.29) to three-choice platters ($9.99). By my quick math, there are 1232 possible combinations of the pick-three platter. If that isn’t variety, I don’t know what is. I chose the fried chicken salad, paired with the fried chicken slider, and onion rings. Yeah, I like fried stuff. There are plenty of other choices for the more health conscious diners. If you have a larger group, or just extra hungry, the appetizers are very satisfying as well. Very walkable from most points downtown. Parking is available at metered spots (if you get lucky) and the MTD parking lot. Generally, there is no issue with getting in and seated, and out again in under an hour. Occasionally I’ve seen a slight wait at the door but only at the peak of lunch rush. When the weather is cooperating, it’s nice to sit outside and watch the world go by.

Seven Saints
32 E Chester St, Champaign
Open daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Esquire Lounge

The Esquire has served as a cornerstone of refreshment since 1975. Located in the heart of downtown Champaign, they have witnessed the good times and the bad, and watched as the downtown district has transformed into the vibrant food and drink scene it is today. Not to be left behind, Esquire has a pretty diverse menu as well. Like any good pub, they have an assortment of fried appetizers and sides to pair with a hot, grilled sandwich of your choice. They even have vegetarian options like black bean burgers, Portobello mushroom sandwiches, and grilled cheese. For those of you that want low calorie or variety, there is a salad bar and build-your-own pizza menu; something for everyone as I like to say. I always go for the cheese burger ($5.25) and onion rings ($2.50), but the rib-eye sandwich is pretty awesome, too ($8.25). Plenty of seating for large or small groups and very walkable, parking is available at meters and MTD lot. If you aren’t driving, be sure to try some pineapple tequila!

Esquire Lounge
106 North Walnut, Champaign
Open daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Pekara

The history of mankind is replete with innovation, but the art of baking is, in my opinion, one of the most impactful and wide ranging. Sure you could argue about mastering fire, planned agriculture, domestication of livestock, and forging iron but I say nay — converting grains to flours and flours to bread is way tastier. When you combine the mastery of baking fresh breads with a lunch counter, magic happens. The soups seem heartier; the sandwiches are more… sandwichy? (That’s not a word, but it should be). To have such an establishment in the heart of downtown is a wonderful renaissance of the old ways and something to cherish. I had the ham and swiss melt on a chewy pretzel bun with a sweet honey mustard ($7.29). I would say normally this would be plenty, but it was zero degrees out so I added a bowl of soup ($5.95). Full disclosure: the soup is commercially purchased and served in several other local establishments… but it was supplemented with fresh in-house baked bread so I give them a pass. This gives them more time to focus on the breads. The bistro lunch combo ($9.99) offers some variety to experiment with, and they have a selection of crepes. They even have omelets, if you are the breakfast anytime type. Seating is more limited so be cognizant of lunch rush. Parking is available at meters on Neil, and the Hill St. garage is within walking range. My order came out very quickly, so time shouldn’t be a factor.

Pekara
116 N Neil St, Champaign
Monday-Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Farren’s Pub & Eatery

The ultimate back-alley, hidden gem, Farren’s has been serving up some fantastic food since the turn of the millennia. It can be hard to find for first timers, but once you’ve had it you won’t forget how to get there. I’m always amazed at what they can muster out of such a small kitchen. But don’t worry, the staff practices zone defense and extra-large cups so you won’t go thirsty. From giant mouth-watering burgers to hefty salads, there is something for every diner. Speaking of burgers, you will find a Farren’s burger on any best-of list worth its salt — a whopping half pound served in various styles for any palate. They also offer vegetarian bean burgers. I like my burgers to be meat, covered by more meat and cheese with a side of fries (fries additional $1.50). There is nothing wrong with “special” burgers, but I like to judge on basics, and a good ol’ bacon cheeseburger ($9) shows off the quality of the components without a sauce for a crutch. You can really taste the foundation the specials are built upon. They also have some “meaty” salads with house-made dressing that leave you wanting nothing, except perhaps a nap. Located next to Hill Street garage with a metered lot across Randolph, parking is a breeze. Walking is easy too, especially if you know the back alleys. If you are in a hurry, get there early! The secret burger spot isn’t so secret, and the wait time can go up quickly during lunch rush.

Farren’s 
308 N Randolph St, Champaign
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sunday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

All photos by Rob Schaffer.