Sal and Zach assess quality food at longtime café while discussing restaurants past
Ah, the lovely Bevier Café on a humid, scorching-hot June day. Hard to believe it’s only spring.
My friend and colleague Zach Kennedy, who works three floors up at Illinois Extension on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, zips through the line with me, selecting fish and chips and a dessert. I get the caprese panini, house-made potato chips, a red velvet parfait, and a chocolate chip cookie. Approximately twenty people dot the tables, talking and eating lunch. The atmosphere is relaxed as soft music plays in the background. It’s blessedly cool.
The female cashier has sandy blonde hair and wears glasses and a mask. Her black apron matches the background of her floral-patterned short-sleeved shirt. She’s studying food science at Illinois and enjoys working at the café.
She rings up my order: $13.08. It’s not a bad price for all the food I’ve selected, and Zach says the same thing about his meal, which is cheaper. We find a table not far from the entrance and chat about food and local restaurants.
Zach doesn’t take for granted his good fortune in working at Bevier Hall, where Bevier Café is housed. He tells me he eats here about once a week, often with his workmates or acquaintances he runs into.
He informs me that Bevier Café sells its standard paninis and salads every day, while other food items rotate in and out. Just then his fish and chips arrive. Zach politely waits to eat until I get my plate, telling me he likes the included grilled lemon, which he sprinkles on his fish.
“Not exactly a low-calorie option,” Zach says about his meal. “Every once in a while, you’ve got to have some fried food.”
My meal arrives and we dig in. The café’s house-made potato chips are large, thick, and crunchy with nary a grain of salt. Later in the day, as they’re sitting in my to-go box, I notice they smell like McDonald’s French fries, not an undesirable thing.
The bread on my panini is thoroughly toasted with light and dark tracks across it, like perfectly formed rows of corn in a cornfield. The tomato is thinly sliced, and the pesto and balsamic reduction are evenly spread and thin looking like the tomato, a measured balance of flavors. I appreciate that there is not too much mozzarella clogging things up.
Zach’s got three pieces of fish sitting atop steak fries on his plate. He’s not sure what kind of fish it is but speculates it could be cod, which is standard for fish-and-chip orders. He likes the batter on the fish, telling me it’s not too thick or thin. His fish arrived hot and isn’t too greasy, and it tastes fresh, he says. He’s got 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 says. “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 look up and notice around ten children filing inside. The atmosphere and noise level instantly charge up a notch. It looks like a camp because there are a few adults accompanying the kids.
Zach tells me his fries could use a bit more salt but are cooked nicely and not underdone. He leaves to get ketchup.
All at once, Carter Phillips, an instructional chef at Bevier Café, begins talking to the group of children who are gathered around him:
“How many of you like food?” he asks the kids. “How many of you think you want to be chefs when you grow up?” A couple of them raise their hands. “There are lots of different options you can do if you’re interested in food,” he explains.
Phillips tells 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 says. “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 relates how the student-run café functions, and then invites the group to have lunch, with a tour of the kitchen to follow.
How cool, I think, 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 tells me he’s 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 tell 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 is an astounding concoction, my favorite food item of the lunch. The cream cheese is piled on top and spread beneath, thick and sweet, perhaps seeping into the granules of the red velvet cake, which is itself moist and gooey. I finish the cup and want to take another one to go, but I restrain myself.
“We’re lucky to have this building,” Zach says.
“Definitely,” I respond.
Food photos taken by Zach Kennedy.
All other photos taken by Sal Nudo.