Ah, the lovely Bevier Café on a humid, scorching-hot day.
Photo by Sal Nudo.
My friend and colleague Zach Kennedy, who works three floors up at Illinois Extension, zipped through the line with me, selecting fish and chips and a dessert. I ordered the caprese panini, house-made potato chips, red velvet parfait, and a chocolate chip cookie. Approximately twenty people dotted the tables in the café, talking and eating lunch. The atmosphere was relaxed as soft music played in the background. It was blessedly cool.
The female cashier had sandy blonde hair and wore glasses and a mask. Her black apron matched the background of her floral-patterned short-sleeved shirt. She told me that she's studying food science at Illinois and enjoys working at the café. She rang up my order: $13.08. It was not a bad price for all the food I selected, and Zach said the same thing about his meal, which was cheaper. We found a table not far from the entrance and chatted about food and local restaurants.
Zach works at Bevier Hall, where Bevier Café is housed. He told me he eats here about once a week, often with his workmates or acquaintances he runs into. He informed me that Bevier Café sells its standard paninis and salads every day, while other food items rotate in and out. Zach's fish and chips arrived.
Photo by by Zach Kennedy.
Zach politely waited to eat until I had my plate, telling me he liked the grilled lemon which he sprinkled on his fish.
“Not exactly a low-calorie option,” Zach said about his meal. “Every once in a while, you’ve got to have some fried food.”
Photo byby Zach Kennedy.
My meal arrived, and we dug in. The café’s house-made potato chips were large, thick, and crunchy with nary a grain of salt. Later in the day, as they sat in my to-go box, I noticed they smelled like McDonald’s fries, not an undesirable thing.
The bread on my panini was thoroughly toasted with light and dark tracks across it like perfectly formed rows of corn in a cornfield. The tomato was thinly sliced, and the pesto and balsamic reduction were evenly spread and thin looking like the tomato, a measured balance of flavors. I appreciated that there was not too much mozzarella clogging things up.
Zach had three pieces of fish sitting atop steak fries on his plate. He was not sure what kind of fish it was but speculated that it could be cod, which is standard for fish-and-chip orders. He liked the batter on the fish, telling me it wasn't too thick or thin. His fish arrived hot and wasn’t too greasy, and it tasted fresh, he said. He had tartar sauce, a cup of coleslaw, and the aforementioned lemon to season things up and ease the fried fare.
“It’s not a mayonnaise-based coleslaw,” Zach said. “It’s more of a vinegar- and sugar-based coleslaw which I prefer. I don’t like the super mayonnaise-y stuff, especially on a hot day like today. You don’t want a lot of mayonnaise. I’m already having fried stuff.”
I looked up and noticed around ten children filing inside. The atmosphere and noise level instantly charged up a notch. It looked like a camp because there were a few adults accompanying the kids.
Zach told me his fries could use a bit more salt but were cooked nicely and not underdone.
All at once, Carter Phillips, an instructional chef at Bevier Café, began talking to the group of children, who gathered around him.
“How many of you like food?” he asked the kids. “How many of you think you want to be chefs when you grow up?” A couple of them raised their hands. “There are lots of different options you can do if you’re interested in food,” he explained.
Phillips told the children that the students in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition who work at Bevier Café are studying to be dieticians or in hospitality management.
“They are not necessarily training here to be chefs,” Phillips said. “But because their career path is going to intercept with a commercial kitchen, what we do is we teach them how to operate it safely and efficiently.”
He related how the student-run café functions and then invited the group to have lunch with a tour of the kitchen to follow.
How cool, I thought, suddenly feeling a bit guilty that I’ve worked on campus for more than fifteen years and have only dined at Bevier twice — a number that includes this visit.
Zach told me he has worked at several restaurants including The Spaghetti Shop in Savoy, The Courier Café in Urbana, and the City of New Orleans in Downtown Champaign. I told him that my parents owned several Central Park restaurants in the 1990s, drive-thru-only joints that served made-to-order burgers, perfectly seasoned fries, and eventually chicken sandwiches to diversify the menu.
I think of pop-up restaurants, eateries in C-U that have come and gone, and of pricey food-delivery services such as DoorDash and Uber Eats. Restaurants come and go, and the industry is always in flux, but nestled into a second-floor corner of Bevier Hall, this café feels classic, collaborative, and timeless.
The red velvet parfait was an astounding concoction, my favorite food item of the lunch. The cream cheese was piled on top and spread beneath, thick and sweet, perhaps seeping into the granules of the red velvet cake, which was itself moist and gooey. I finished the cup and wanted to take another one to go, but I restrained myself.
“We’re lucky to have this building,” Zach said.
“Definitely,” I responded.
260 Bevier Hall
North Entrance – Second Floor
905 S Goodwin Ave
T-F 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
M-F 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. self service
Cafe will be closed August 5th through August 29th for student break.