Nineteen years ago the restaurant scene in Champaign-Urbana was different, to say the least. Probably more than half of our current high-end dining choices didn’t exist, and you could always get a table at Farren’s.
That was when I moved to Champaign, got a job near Downtown, and met the man I’d eventually marry through mutual friends. As a group we would often go out to eat at one of three places, two of which no longer exist: El Matador (the mother restaurant of all of the current El Toro locations;My Thai currently occupies that space), and The Office in Downtown Urbana. The third, The Office II, is still tucked away in the parking lot of the Country Fair Shopping Plaza in Champaign.
The Office II became a pretty big part of our lives. We spent Valentine’s Day 2000 there while still just friends, celebrating a loveless “bitterness bash” with our group. When we started dating shortly thereafter, it was our Thursday night dinner spot. When we got engaged, I called my best friend from the parking lot to ask her to be my maid of honor. We took my parents there to eat the day after our wedding.
All this by way of saying, we’ve been fans of theirs for a long time. When kids entered the picture, however, dining out — especially in a pub setting — more or less stopped.
We’ve been back a handful of times since, and I felt confident enough in the fact that their cooking is still pretty solid to suggest it for a review. The day my husband and I picked to visit for lunch turned out to be cold, damp, and cloudy: The perfect setup for a meal that would turn out to provide glorious belly warmth for the rest of the afternoon.
The first thing I noticed when looking at the menu is that it seems to have shrunk. It fits on the front and back of an approximately 5” x 7” laminated card. I thought it used to be a full-sized, folding job, but I could be wrong. In any case, I liked that they don't push a ton of menu items. There are approximately 4-5 offerings in each of the following categories: appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, and salads/wraps.
Right off the bat our waitress informed us of their specials: cod, chicken and noodles, and tortellini soup. I don’t remember it being a specials kind of place back in the day, but reasoned they would be pretty good. Why bother having them otherwise?
Of the two, I thought the cod sounded like the better choice. After some tortured self-debate, I went with the taco salad, something I used to order and remember enjoying. My husband was instantly drawn to the chicken and noodles. Rounding out our orders were two draft Miller Lites (side note: I feel there’s a sad trend towards small pubs phasing out draft beer; is it just me?) and buffalo cauliflower bites.
A moment after our waitress stepped away I heard the pop and hiss of the fryer as our cauliflower hit the hot fat. It sounded like heaven on that damp, cold day.
A few moments after that, she returned to tell us that no one prepped taco meat, so I’d need to order something else. Almost relieved, I went with my first impulse and ordered the cod. I was picturing cod filets and fries in a basket; what I got was a cod sandwich, fries on the side. More on that in a bit.
The whole no-taco-meat thing reinforced my feeling that The Office II isn’t content with just serving whatever. Though I didn’t ask and can’t say for sure, it seems they don’t keep a ton of extra food in the back of the freezer for occasions such as that. This convinced me that what we were about to eat would be fresh and yummy.
The cauliflower arrived and we tucked in. The serving was perfect for two people to share, and the bites were piping hot and well seasoned, though not especially spicy. Don’t take my word for that, though. I can take a good degree of heat and still want more. I wonder if they had a cornmeal breading; the slight sweetness and crackly crunch reminded me of hush puppies. Dipped in ranch and washed down with our drafts, they were a great way to kick off our nostalgic lunch.
The entrees arrived while we were still munching on our appetizer (it wasn’t very busy that day), and both surprised me somewhat. To start: the chicken and noodles looked amazing. When I pictured the dish in my head, it was more like chicken noodle soup on a plate than what was actually served. I was surprised, first of all, at just how much tender chicken it contained. The fact that the noodles were nice and fat and that it was ladled on a bed of mashed redskin potatoes made me regret not choosing it for myself. Luckily, as I was the one charged with reviewing the food, I had a good reason to help myself to a couple of bites (I made sure to share some of my fish in return). It was everything I hoped for: comfort food of the first order. The seasoned green beans, which looked like they’d never seen the inside of a can, were tender but still with nice bite.
My food surprised me because, as I mentioned, I didn’t realize it was a sandwich. My husband and I both remember being told “cod” was the special; Office II regulars would probably not need the additional information about it being a sandwich. I’ve come to realize that I prefer fried foods to not be served on a bun, at least in most cases. I feel like the breading and the bun compete with each other too much.
The cod however, was lightly breaded, well seasoned, and tender, and the bun was nice and soft; it didn’t overwhelm the fish. It was served with onions, pickles, and packets of tartar sauce. Fries expertly touched with salt and pepper and a side of perfectly crunchy/wilty, nicely dressed coleslaw rounded out the plate.
The total for three draft beers, the cauliflower, and the two specials was $32. With a tip, we were out the door for $40. I thought that was an amazing bargain.
Not much has changed at the Office II over the years. New beer posters have been put up, the CD jukebox has been replaced with a wall-mounted Touch Tunes kiosk, and there are a few slot machines. The building could probably use an update, to be sure.
One thing that did change, and for the worse, is that they no longer serve their fantastic waffle fries. The fries they do have, however, are a reasonable substitute (by which I mean they’re pretty darned good).
All these years later, The Office II seems to still hold itself to a high standard for good food, drink, and service; I really feel they don’t get the credit they deserve for this. They won’t go out of their way to get your patronage, but they will be happy to see you if you visit. That is exactly what I’m recommending.
The Office II
302 S Country Fair Dr
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Su noon to 2 a.m.
Photos by Rachael McMillan