When I first moved here, the sign above Guido’s in Downtown Champaign was not prominent, or I didn’t notice it. Instead, my eye focused on building inscription: 2 East Main. What is this 2 East Main, I asked myself? It was clearly a restaurant. When I saw that it was called Guido’s, I thought that it was probably some Italian spot, because where I grew up, the Guido’s restaurant was a local Eye-talian joint. Ravioli, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna — that sort of Italian restaurant. But Guido’s in Champaign is a little different. It’s a sports bar. It’s the place you go to watch the game and get a drink, and maybe a few nibbles. It’s not a chef-driven, gourmet fine-dining situation. The seating is open, and in the past, this has also meant that service is slow, at best. But over the last year or so, there have been some changes that have made Guido’s a more desirable place to dine and get a drink, game or no.
The newish menu features riffs on bar and diner basics: burgers, fries, chicken strips, sandwiches, salads. As we mentioned in 2014, the burger is really nice. I’m all for a thin griddle burger (classic without extras, $7.25), and you won’t find a better one in Downtown Champaign, that’s for sure. I highly recommend it. But sometimes it’s the side dish that makes, the meal, you know what I mean? And for me, the side that I’m always going to order is eggplant fries.
Eggplant fries, you ask? Yes. They are delicious. Eggplant is one of those food items that can cause taste bud euphoria in one bite, or a bile response in another. If it’s too bitter, or too soft, or if it has too many seeds — forget it, it’s gross. But thinly sliced strips that are battered and fried? Yes, please. Guido’s does these eggplant fries right (side, $3.25). They are crispy on the outside. They are soft on the inside. (But not too soft.) They are an interesting way to spruce up your standard burgers-and-fries combo. I order them every time I’m at Guido’s.
The eggplant fries are served with a honey mustard sauce that is more mustard than honey. This is fine. But the best way to serve eggplant fries, in my humble opinion, is to generously dust them with finely grated parmesan cheese and serve with some delicious tomato sauce. Honestly, I don’t think Guido’s is the right place to do that version of eggplant fries, if only because finely grated Parmesan and a delicious tomato sauce are not already on the menu. Extraneous menu items are hard to justify. I understand. But readers, if you see some eggplant fries with the cheese and sauce on a menu at a restaurant somewhere along your life adventure, order it.
But I digress. With the classic burgers-and-fries combo often comes the milkshake ($4.50, sans alcohol). With or without booze, these sweet, thick, sugary treats are definitely an indulgent way to wash down some fried bar food. But the ones I had were damn tasty. Order one for the kids, and order one, with booze, for yourself. It’ll make for a wonderful evening.
Most delicious bar foods involve some sort of fried meat, but perhaps you prefer vegetables, or are maintaining your boyish form. The eggplant sandwich ($7.75) is stuffed with grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, goat cheese, and balsamic glaze. The grilled sourdough bread can barely hold the sandwich components within. It was a challenge to eat the sandwich as intended, but it still tasted good coming off a fork. The veggies were perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the salty, decadent cheese makes the sammie a little special. This classic combination of flavors works well, and the sandwich was wholly satisfying. (With a side of eggplant fries.)
The Cobb salad ($8.75) is nothing to scoff at either — the portion was large, with heaping piles of toppings arranged to create a beautiful palette of flavor potential. The bed of romaine lettuce under the toppings wasn’t fancy, but it was plentiful. The wonderful thing about ordering food at Guido’s is that the waitstaff is unlikely to crinkle a nose at the customization of your food items, including the un-Cobbing of your Cobb salad. (Sorry, not a fan of hard boiled eggs.) And you can choose your own dressing.
During the warm months, Guido’s outdoor seating is unparalleled. There’s a ton of it, but it fills quickly. At the corer of Main and Neil, it’s prime people-watching territory. If it’s warm enough outside, choose outdoor seating. On my last two visits, the waitstaff have been more than attentive, and it’s been nice to bask in dappled urban sunlight.
Guido’s is an unpretentious sports bar serving bar food that’s surprisingly good. While improvements have been slow to come, they have indeed arrived. And as long as those eggplant fries are on the menu, I’ll be returning.
Guido’s is located at 2 East Main Street, Champaign, and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.