Smile Politely

Dinner + a movie: Bagdad Cafe + Courier Cafe

Let me share a tale of two cafes: one in Urbana and one in Bagdad.

Photo from Wikipedia.

That’s Bagdad (as in California) not Baghdad (as in Iraq). Although Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe is set in the U.S., this 1987 cult classic is really an English-language film produced by Germans, directed by a German, and stars a very popular German actress (Marianne Sägebrecht). Like Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, Bagdad Cafe looks at America through the eyes of foreigners and what we see reflected back is very odd indeed.

With a title like Bagdad Cafe, one would expect the movie to show some yummy dishes or at least some scenes of people eating. Sorry, foodies, the closest you’ll get to see anything edible in this movie is dirty dishes being cleared from tables.

Instead, you’ll see a cast of colorful characters in a collage of scenes set in a funky roadside diner that feels like a microcosm of our country. Well, sort of. The characters all seem familiar; there’s the frustrated mother, the fledgling musician, the slutty teen, the visionary painter, the moody tattoo artist, and the men who like to leave their wives. Into this spiritually deprived desert environment walks a German tourist, and her presence becomes a catalyst for change. Swinging wildly between surrealism and magic realism, this whimsical film is unpredictable in the best way. Filled with fantasy sequences, visionary imagery, strange camera angles, quirky editing and odd use of colored gels, one never knows what to expect next. Except that musical sequence that comes out of nowhere — you just know that it’s coming. 

The rest of the world may love American movies, but unfortunately we don’t return the love. Foreign films don’t do well at the box office here, and as a result, many foreign films never find an American distributor — and those that do often go directly to video. Despite recent streaming hits like Squid Game, Roma, and Parasite, it seems Americans are allergic to subtitles. There hasn’t been any major foreign language hits here since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) which still holds the title of top grossing non-English language film of all time.

In fact, the label “foreign films” may explain our prejudice. We don’t call imported food “foreign” food, so maybe we should be using a better label like “international” films instead? What I like about international films is the cultural insight gained through watching these movies. It’s not just the stories, the settings, or the characters; the whole experience just feels different. I guess that’s why I like ethnic food so much; everything just tastes so different.

Bagdad Cafe is one of those movies where you are so charmed by what’s on the screen that you’re smiling throughout the whole movie. So what to do about dinner after absorbing a special feel-good movie like this? Well, why not go to our own unique cafe here in Urbana: The Courier Cafe? I like to go for the eclectic atmosphere, the funky decor, and the charm of this unique place. Because we’re still living in pandemic times, our favorite local diner is only offering take-out after 3 p.m. We wanted to dine in, so we had to wait until the next day before we could experience our hometown cafe through a foreigner’s eyes.

Even before entering The Courier Cafe, you get the feeling that you are about to enter someplace special. As the huge mural in their parking lot welcomes you, one realizes that there’s some serious history here. In fact, The Courier happens to be the longest operating restaurant in our town.

Photo by Paul Young.

There’s also a plaque on the outside wall that explains the historical significance of this building and reveals where The Courier got its name: it is the same building where the Champaign-Urbana Courier was printed until the newspaper folded in 1979.

Photo by Paul Young.

When you walk in the restaurant, you are immediately welcomed by a ceiling fan in the form of an antique toy airplane hanging above. As you look around, you can see that the entire restaurant is decorated with lots of other unique gems from the past and all of them seem to be functional and working. Next to the airplane is a copper chandelier hanging from a beautifully restored copper ceiling. Across the room is a traditional grandfather clock that still keeps time accurately. As I was waiting for my table, I perused a display case of unique antiques from owner Allen Strong’s collection.

Looking around the room, I saw young folks, old folks, students, families, kids, a little microcosm of our community.

Photo by Paul Young.

My partner and I have eaten at The Courier hundreds of times before, but what’s great about their menu is the fact that it rarely changes. Sure, there are specials on the blackboard, but we usually don’t stray from our favorites.

Photo by Paul Young.

Without looking at the menu, I ordered the reuben sandwich on German rye ($9.75) which was made with what I consider the best corned beef in town: impossibly juicy and super briny. What makes an ordinary corned beef sandwich into a reuben is the required addition of German sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese. The Courier version was loaded with both. Sure, thousand island dressing is optional, but serving it on the side gave me the option to dip or not to dip with every bite, a smart move by The Courier.

Photo by Paul Young.

My partner ordered the huge Dagwood sandwich on sourdough ($9.75) which is appropriately named after the cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead. It had the entire deli layered inside three slices of bread, and it was so big she couldn’t finish it. It’s been a while since we ordered this sandwich, and if my memory serves me correctly, they used to be taller. Still, this one was tall enough that it was a struggle to take a bite. This kitchen-sink sandwich shouldn’t work; it had ham, roast beef, Swiss cheese, cheddar cheese, pickle slices, tomato, lettuce, cucumbers, thinly sliced red onion, mayonnaise, mustard, and I don’t know what else — but for some reason, the alchemy did work. Although the garnish of extra lettuce, tomato, and pickle spear weren’t necessary, they were appreciated.

Photo by Paul Young.

The salad bar is available for 49 cents per ounce — a super good deal. It was well stocked by salad maestros. For my salad base, I chose fresh spinach. Red onions and mushrooms go well with a spinach salad, so I had those as easy additions to my salad. I think coleslaw always goes well with sandwiches, and it was right there for the taking (why pay an extra $2.50 when it’s “free?”). The black bean salad looked pretty good, so I had some of that, too. I saw some sliced almonds; do you know how much those are by the pound? I added some of the bacon bits, real crumbled bacon pieces. Upon close examination, I noticed those mushrooms on my plate were fresh shiitake mushrooms. I also had a fresh baked roll with whipped butter, and it was free, not weighed with the rest of the salad. How do they make any money with these premium ingredients?

I usually take my salad dressing on the side, so I had one, and I asked for an extra cup — which for some reason was also not weighed. The salad dressing choices were a decent variety that included French, ranch, balsamic vinaigrette, blue cheese, curry (!), the traditional mix-your-own olive oil and vinegar, Aegean oil and feta, and a Greek-inspired vinaigrette with lemon juice. The total price for this salad was $1.90. Wow!

Photo by Paul Young.

We wanted to end our meal by sharing a chocolate malt ($5.25) which was served in an old-fashioned malt glass. The huge serving came with extra leftover malt brought to the table in a mixer. No waste here.

When it was time to pay, the cashier rang us up on the working antique cash register.

Photo by Paul Young.

Although we’ve never indulged, there’s also a working antique gumball machine for the kiddies.

Photo by Paul Young.

Perhaps the most charming dining establishment in Urbana, The Courier Cafe could very well be our town’s little secret roadside attraction, the local equivalent of our own Bagdad Cafe.

If you really liked the movie, you can actually visit the “real” Bagdad Cafe where the movie was filmed. Located right off Route 66, this roadside diner was originally called Sidewinder Cafe, but the owners changed the name to match the movie’s title after the film became an international hit. According to the owners, only 5% of their visitors are American. Most are French tourists who come from Europe to pay tribute to this special place and the iconic America it represents.

The Courier Cafe
111 N Race St
T-Su 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
W-Sa 3 to 8 p.m. carryout only

Bagdad Cafe is currently streaming on Kanopy, the free go-to streaming platform for international and indie favorites. While most other streaming sites compete with each other for the most popular titles, Kanopy focuses on the unusual, obscure and hidden gems in our vast film library in the cloud.

Looking for more interesting fare to stream? Rotten Tomatoes scores and IMDB ratings are great, but did you ever notice the little metascore number next to the critic reviews link on the IMDB site? This number often differs quite a bit from the IMDB rating. And more often than not, I agree with the metascore rather than the IMDB rating. These days, when I’m looking for good movies to watch, I head to where I can pull up a list of new streaming movies sorted by metascore. I can even filter by what’s currently available on my favorite streaming platforms, and I can do the same with TV shows as well. So now you can take your pick: see what’s popular or see what film critics think is good.

Paul Young is a townie who likes to travel the world seeking good things to eat. So far, he has eaten his way through 22 countries, and he loves to share his culinary discoveries with cooking classes

Top image by Paul Young.

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