Champaign-Urbana was recently rated the second best college town in the country. I would bet anything that our food is what put us on the map. My best advice to incoming students is to get a little bit flexible with your wallet and with your waistline because you are in for a TREAT.
Here are six stories about my six favorite on-campus eats. I didn’t rank them in any particular order because I love them all equally. I gave them superlatives instead! My goal is to help you embrace your inner foodie from the very first day you arrive at Illinois.
Best Ambience: The Bread Company
The first time I stepped foot inside of The Bread Company was by accident. I was walking down Goodwin Avenue with three of my actor friends. We had just finished a long audition prep session in the bowels of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. All we wanted to do was sit down, have a snack, and shoot the breeze. As soon as we realized that we couldn’t take another step, we picked the first door on our left and said, “We’re stopping here.” We walked in and froze in the entryway.
The Bread Company is a beautiful restaurant, and we were four moderately sweaty and very tired actors. We belonged at a restaurant of the caliber of Jimmy John’s (no offense to Jimmy John’s, their sandwiches are pretty good). Anyone could see that we didn’t belong in an eclectically decorated fancy Swiss restaurant, at least at that time. But as soon as the hostess saw us, she waved us over, inviting us in.
That’s a good word to sum up the feel of The Bread Company: inviting. Every single chair in the place is a different style, and on each table sits a little candle. The light from each one bounces off the burnt orange and yellow walls and creates a happy, warm glow. We did a lot of smiling that evening.
Oh, and the food? Stellar. Many of my friends consider it to be the best restaurant on campus. It’s the place you take your lover out to dinner if it’s starting to get serious. That’s how you know a restaurant is good. The owners designed the place with romance in mind, from the flavors in the food to the wine selection to the effortlessly lovely décor. But as my actor friends and I discovered, it’s also a great place to share a pizza with your buddies and decompress after a long evening of making art. I can’t wait to go back.
Best Speed-to-Deliciousness Ratio: Manolo’s Pizza & Empanadas
It was a Tuesday night in February, and I was nearing the end of my longest day of the week. My four-hour rehearsal was due to begin in 17 minutes, and I still had not eaten dinner. Forgetting to eat is not an option as an actor working on a play with intense physical demands. I had to scarf something filling down, and fast. Enter: Manolo’s Pizza & Empanadas.
Manolo’s is a hole-in-the-wall joint across the street from the Krannert Center, and it has saved my blood sugar levels countless times. They make the best empanadas known to man in flavor combinations you would never expect. They are a perfect grab-and-go snack, and I’m salivating just thinking about it! I love their veggie slices and their chocolate empanadas the most. Their meat options make it very difficult to maintain my vegetarian diet.
Manolo’s is so good that one of my acting teachers frequently discusses pizza slices from Manolo’s to illustrate goal setting for actors. It’s true. One example I remember him sharing is this: “If I give myself an unattainable goal like, ‘I am never going to eat pizza again,’ I’ll immediately black out, and before I know it, I’m suddenly at Manolo’s again, ordering my second slice!” He’s right. The pizza is that good.
Most Delicious Pad Thai: Bangkok Thai
If it’s 90 degrees or warmer outside, be very careful with what you order at Bangkok Thai. My first excursion to this hidden gem was with my coworkers on a blazing Thursday in the middle of July. I chose a rather spicy sauce for my noodles. Why not, I thought. I love Thai food!
Despite my good intentions, my choice was a little too ambitious for my only-recently-adventurous taste buds. And because there is no AC in the restaurant, my t-shirt was soaked with sweat and sauce and who knows what else by the time I finished eating. Somehow, I would go back and order that Pad Thai with tofu again in a second, no matter how hot it is outside. It was the best Thai food I have ever had. Bangkok Thai rocks.
Best Vegan/Vegetarian Food: The Red Herring
How do you know if a normal person is a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.
How do you know if an Illinois student is a vegan? They’ll invite you to lunch at The Red Herring.
Okay, got it. Neither of those jokes are funny. It’s fine. But they’re both true.
My vegan friend invited me to lunch at The Red Herring this past spring, and I’m so glad she did. This is a restaurant that is unlike anything I had ever seen, and it’s only steps from the main Quad. It’s colorful and lively, but also earthy and wholesome. There is usually live music during the dinner that they serve every Wednesday night. The dinner platters are often themed, and my favorite one so far was during Egyptian food night. I have fond memories of eating dinner at The Red Herring with my fellow actors before rehearsals.
The Red Herring is an adventure for your taste buds whether you’re vegan or not. It is well worth the money. I appreciate their mission so much that I have shared it below:
“We started up in 1967, originally as a coffeehouse and gathering space for local social and environmental change groups. From anti-war to free speech to antidiscrimination and environmental groups, this was a haven for around the clock activism. We stand true today to our mission and to putting our founding principles into practice. We are cooking the most wholesome food on the planet, in the most sustainable way we know how. We buy mostly local and organic food, we grow some of our own, we operate as a not for profit, and we support activist and creative groups, all through our radically inclusive space.”The Red Herring Website
Best Eggs: Cracked
You gotta understand: I LOVE eggs. I know it’s weird, but they might be my favorite food. Because I am a recently-converted vegetarian who is constantly on the hunt for protein, I eat an average of four eggs per day. Eggs are delicious, nutritious, full of protein, and super versatile. And you know who understands that better than anybody? Cracked!
I have come to rely on Cracked on two different occasions.
The first is for Illini Football home games, especially when it’s chilly. Cracked has a popular food truck as well as a permanent storefront on Green Street. Their truck menu is almost as extensive as their storefront menu. When the Illini are matched up against a team that is favored to win by 40 points, a Morning Bender from the Cracked truck brings me peace (and warm hands) in the face of impending defeat. Throw in some of their crispy tots and a hot coffee, and I’m a happy lady. I hear rumblings that the Fighting Illini will be very good this fall. Even if they start winning more, I’ll still be buying Morning Benders.
I also depend on Cracked for late night snacks during the school year, thanks to their late night hours. During finals week, I went with a friend to Cracked at 11:45 p.m. (!!!!) Our sleep schedules were already so thrown off that we figured one midnight meal wouldn’t be too disastrous. We enjoyed our breakfast for dinner while watching the foot traffic on Green Street go by. It helped us forget about the stress of finals for a moment. We were present with each other, and with our delicious eggs.
Best Burrito: Maize
Maize sells the best burritos in the world. Even for vegetarians. If you haven’t been to Maize yet, I implore you to go there for your next meal. I have nothing else to say on the subject until you have experienced this deliciousness for yourself.
There you have it! Thanks for reading. Happy eating!! 🙂