At Smile Politely it is always our intention to celebrate the things that make living here great, and point out the areas that could use some improvement. This week, we’d like to talk about some cuisines we’re missing in our restaurant scene.
With an estimated population of about 200,000 people (give or take a few thousand), two hospitals, a massive Research I university, a well respected and attended community college, and a growing tech industry, there’s no reason Champaign-Urbana can’t support a few more dining establishments featuring food and flavors not currently represented here. Yes, we have a lot of restaurants in C-U, but we’re not talking about quantity or even quality; we’re talking about a diversity of options.
Champaign-Urbana is rich in cultural diversity, and we’d love to be able to support and celebrate all of the cultures and cuisines of the people who live and work here. Realistically, though, opening and maintaining a restaurant is hard work and incredibly expensive. In order to appeal to as many people as possible, it seems most practical to stretch the cuisine to it’s most expansive possible iteration — Mediterranean instead of Middle Eastern, Southern food instead of Soul food. The problem with doing so is that it erases the details, the beauty in the specificity. So, instead of parsing hairs here, and arguing about what is practically possible, why not play this little game with us and imagine the specific cuisines you’d like to experience here in C-U. Here they are, in no particular order.
A potato knish. Photo by Jessica Hammie.
Of all the things on this list, a Jewish deli is the one the entire editorial board craves the most. There’s a special kind of comfort in the traditional American Jewish deli, even if you didn’t grow up regularly eating at one. In large cities, Jewish delis tend to be decades-old family-run businesses born of necessity and circumstance. Jewish deli food is the food of a diaspora, so it’s everywhere and has been adapted and remixed to suit the needs of the community. It’s food meant to feed working people.
Don’t misunderstand us: there are plenty of places to get a sandwich in C-U — that’s not up for debate. We just don’t have anywhere to get Jewish American classics like bagels with schmear and lox and pastrami on rye and a bowl of matzo ball soup and some delicious pickles and a half dozen potato knishes and some cheese blintzes. It’s no secret that Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and literally all of the United States have been historically, and are currently, hostile toward Jews and Judaism. There is only a small history of a working class Jewish community in Champaign-Urbana, the type of community that’s been around for generations long enough to open and maintain an establishment like the ones we see in larger cities, so it’s understandable that these delis haven’t existed in C-U since 1980 when Bubbe and Zadie’s closed on Green Street. But with the internet and popularity and visibility of places like Katz’s and Russ & Daughters in New York, or Kaufman’s in Skokie, or Manny’s in Chicago, these types of dishes are more familiar to the average gentile. An abridged, updated version of a Jewish deli could find massive success in C-U, and we are ready to be the first in line to support it.
Technically, we already have a couple of American steakhouses in Champaign. But we do not have any Brazilian food, and we would like to have at least one restaurant specializing in the cuisine. The U of I has a unique connection to Brazil through the Lemann Center for Brazilian Studies — there’s a large community of Brazilian students and scholars here. Naturally, just because someone is from a place or studies a place does not necessarily mean that they desire an Americanized version of food from that place. It sure does help to have the cuisine of a large community of expats represented in the dining scene.
For what it’s worth, we’re not imagining Fogo de Chão. Instead, what if there was a smaller-scale Brazilian restaurant that did indeed offer the famed barbecued meat component in addition to other Brazilian favorites like moqueca and feijoada? Would it be something that would appeal to Brazilian students and the people of C-U alike? We won’t know until we try.
Photo by Jessica Hammie.
For just about a minute we actually had two options for locally made ice cream: Red Bicycle Ice Cream and The Dash. Both operations have closed, and that’s a loss for the community. There isn’t anywhere in C-U proper to go and get ice cream — real ice cream. Perhaps there’s a reluctance to open an ice cream shop in the shadow of Jarling’s, but we argue that Jarling’s has its own thing, and is in its own lane, and are willing to bet an old school ice cream shop would do just fine in Downtown Champaign or Urbana. We want a place to go where the flavors are interesting and rotating, there are non-dairy options, and you can sit with the kids or with a date. Imagine if there was an ice cream equivalent of Sipyard in our downtowns. Imagine yourself sharing a hot fudge sundae with your lover (or your kid). Imagine ordering a scoop or pint or cake with flavors like rose or honey lavender, or chocolate cookies and cream, or Biscoff or lemon ginger or…you get the point. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
C-U suffered a failed attempt at an Irish pub a couple of times. No, Irish pubs should not serve salmon pizza. (Should any restaurant?) Instead, think lots of beer and whisky and rich and comforting food like bangers and mash, corned beef and cabbage, fish and chips, Irish stew, boxty, and colcannon. Think live music, and soccer on the TVs. This the sort of pub that Champaign or Urbana could support, and would have the potential to be exponentially more interesting than another bar that doesn’t offer food or entertainment.
Instead of having to haul to the University of Illinois campus to watch the World Cup, you just pop on in to C-U’s Irish pub for a pint and cheer on the women’s national team, since they are obviously the best soccer team on the planet.
Middle Eastern // Persian
Kufta platter at Layalina restaurant in 2014. Photo by Jessica Hammie.
If you’ve lived here long enough, you’ve been around for the handful of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants that have opened and closed. RIP to the following, in no particular order: Papa George, Holy Land, Layalina, Istanbul, Mashawi Grill.
Mediterranean food and Middle Eastern food are not technically the same thing, though there are certainly some crossover flavors and dishes. With the exception of Jerusalem Grill, there aren’t any strictly Middle Eastern restaurants in C-U. While Jerusalem Grill’s food is solid, the restaurant isn’t exactly inviting. It’s not a place you want to go eat; it’s a place where you take your food to go.
A Middle Eastern restaurant with table service is what we’re talking about here. We want to order baba ghannouj and dolmeh and kabobs and ghormeh sabzi and shirin polo and a cocktail or a glass of wine. We imagine a restaurant casual enough to stop in on a weeknight for a nice meal, and nice enough impress visitors. It’s a place where you can order a bunch of dishes and share them among friends and family.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.