By Emily Harrington
It’s not easy to secure a sitter and reservations and put makeup on and straighten your hair—just to go to have a relaxing meal with your boo! Before you’re even eating, you’re pooped and in the hole $40.
So, when you find a place that has the feel of date night but still provides an atmosphere conducive to children, it’s a huge win and great addition to your family’s restaurant repertoire.
I’ve slowly been making the rounds on the downtown Champaign circuit. There are many newish places—none of which I’ve found appropriate for a toddler. I must have been feeling brave this particular Friday night. I decided to bring our 3-year-old son to a downtown spot that looked like it was fun and more casual than many places in downtown Champaign.
For a few months Watson’s Shack & Rail has occupied the old Boltini Lounge at 211 N. Neil St. There is limited street parking here, but ample parking is available at the Hill Street Parking Deck or in the parking lot east of the Virginia Theater. This lot is just a short walk through the alley beside the restaurant. It was a nice night and I was worried there would be a big-time wait since the restaurant does not take reservations. We arrived early to avoid the night rush. At 5:45 p.m. there was a 25-minute wait. However, there was no wait outside. Perfect. This just means my son doesn’t have to be quiet, and I don’t have to be anxious over a mess on the floor.
Watson’s Chicken Shack is all reclaimed wood, metal and glass while occupying a long, narrow room with tables and banquette seating. It was super loud in there as happy hour was in full swing, but the outside seating provided a perfect mix of moderate background noise and visual interest.
I’ve been to places downtown before that didn’t even have high chairs or booster seats, so I was happy to see both when I checked in at the host stand. So far so good! Then our waitress brought a kids cup and coloring supplies. My anxiety subsided. We are going to be OK! This might even be FUN.
Watson’s is a few leaps up from our usual fast-casual spots. They use the term “fine-casual” which is a perfect descriptor. The prices and ambiance fall just in between fast and fine dining. The food, however, is anything but middle of the road.
With coloring well under way, we ordered the crab hushpuppies to start. They were crispy on the outside and soft and moist on the inside. They sauce on the side was the perfect complement of cooling spice.
Although we all stuck with water, they do have some unique cocktails (like adult slushies!), craft beers and small producer wines available. They offered a variety of specials, but their menu consists mostly of fried and spit-roasted chicken in a variety of pieces/sizes. Many menu ingredients are sourced as close to home as possible. Vegan and gluten-free options are also available. And take this as your warning—some items may run out by night’s end.
My husband ordered a cup of seasonal gumbo for $3.50, and he wanted to try their signature “Nashville Hot Chicken” consisting of a fried thigh and a leg with a spicy sauce served on white bread with potato wedges and dill pickles for $11. He loved, loved, loved the chicken. And he considers himself a fried chicken connoisseur. I snagged his pickles. If you like dill pickles, these are the best pickles I have ever had. Worth the trip. They are pickled on site, and they are just phenomenal.
My son had the appetizer of chicken tenders (with choice of sauce) and potato wedges for $6. He was quiet the entire meal. As long as the ketchup was flowing, he was a happy camper. His chicken was golden brown and super crispy.
I had a Prairie Fruits Farm pimento grilled cheese with a fried egg and spicy pimento macaroni and cheese. Don’t judge. I’m pregnant, and I could have added bacon, OK!? The sandwich was $6, the fresh hen egg was an extra buck and the side was $3.50. The bacon would have added another buck, too. It’s hard to describe the perfect harmony of the crisply grilled white bread, slightly runny egg and sharpness of the cheese. Flawless.
While we ate, my son watched the people and trucks and busses drive down Neil Street giving my husband and me a chance to actually talk and not just play toddler defense. We didn’t even have to pull out a device! From start to finish the service was just about an hour. The perfect amount of time for dining with a toddler.
If you do get a sitter—catch live music late night. The restaurant is currently opened Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, and late, late on the weekends. Psych yourself up, and take your family to this downtown destination. You’ll feel both hip and proud of yourself for combining the exploration of date night with the practicality of having your little one(s) in tow. Try hearty, inventive American fare at a price that beats most downtown locales.
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie that left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job to be a 24/7 mom to a dreamy son. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life, because she fell for a fellow townie. Oh, and let’s not forget her other son—a degenerate canine named Heppenheimer.