Smile Politely

Esquire Lounge for great food anytime

Nothing fancy here: peanut shells on the floor, TV screens with the different sporting events. Just another working class bar, right? Don’t let the bar atmosphere fool you, Esquire Lounge has a great menu, with some amazing deals; they aptly balance the comfort of a local hangout with great service, a clean and friendly atmosphere, and a surprisingly diverse food menu, making Esquire a perfect place for a meal anytime, from lunch to late night.

In a town where some bars choose to close the kitchen early if lack of business warrants, Esquire is a beacon of reliability; the kitchen is open until 1 a.m. every day, and the food is always served piping hot. Nothing on the menu costs more than $8, but everything they serve is high quality and prepared with care, and the service is exceptional, possibly the best in the downtown area; they accomplish this through selfless teamwork. Every staff member pitches in and services each customer as needed; the kitchen staff often brings the food out to make sure it is served as hot and fresh as possible.

Esquire seems to just “get it.” They give attention to small details, like the quality of the buns they use, which are toasted in a bun toaster for a clean, consistent texture and flavor. I am not a fan of butter-soaked bread poorly grilled on a dirty flat top, and Esquire smartly avoids this practice. I particularly like the way condiments are served at Esquire. They have two self-serve condiment coolers on either side of the bar, filled with crisp green leaf lettuce, freshly sliced tomatoes, red onions, and delicious hand cut dill pickle spears. The condiments are a great example of why Esquire is a step above typical bar food; many places serve condiments as an afterthought, but Esquire selects high quality vegetables and takes care in preserving their freshness in a covered condiment fridge, and they allow the customers to choose how much of each topping they want.

Looking for a great drink? Try the amazingly refreshing pineapple margarita with house made pineapple tequila. Served in either a salt or sugar rimmed pint glass and garnished with a wedge of fresh pineapple, this is $5.75 very well spent. They have recently added a slushy machine and now serve a frozen version of this local favorite. The bartender let me have a sample, which was absolutely delicious. Esquire also features a great variety of beers, many of them locally brewed, and the staff is very knowledgeable about their beer selection.

Even though Esquire is a bar, I consider it a go-to place for almost any dining situation. It’s a great place to grab lunch or have a nice date dinner, and they offer their full menu for carry-out. It’s clean and very casual, with plenty of seating away from the bar; I often take my kids to have a meal and play some pool, and I never feel uncomfortable having them there. Most recently, I needed a place to watch the baseball playoffs, and Esquire was the perfect option.

I met a friend for dinner and drinks while we watched the game. We shared a couple sandwiches and a basket of French fries. I am a huge fan of their open faced salmon sandwich, an incredible deal at $7.75. The cooks expertly grill a 6 oz salmon filet and serve it over a piece of toasted whole grain bread, alongside a generous serving of fresh black bean and corn salad. The salad has crunchy chunks of green and red bell pepper and is very lightly tossed in a refreshing vinaigrette. The salmon, which always looks and tastes perfect, is served with a side of creamy wasabi sauce. This is one of the best sandwiches in town, and the price simply cannot be beat.

The kitchen also offers some great meatless options, like a grilled portobello sandwich and a black bean veggie burger. We chose the portobello sandwich, which was served with basil pesto on a very tasty toasted onion roll. The mushroom cap was firm and juicy, with a great chargrilled flavor. All sandwiches are served with a bag of potato chips, which can be substituted for fries for $1.25, or choice of fried mushrooms, onion rings, Asian dumplings, or fried broccoli for an additional $2.50. All of the fried appetizers are frozen bar food staples, nothing fancy, but not too pricey either. I really like their french fries; they are medium thickness with a little of the skin still on the edges, and they are always served hot and fresh, which makes a huge difference.

Esquire’s pizzas are also very tasty and affordable. The 10-inch, stone baked, personal cheese pizza is only $5.75, and features some surprising topping options, such as pancetta, portobello mushrooms, and artichoke hearts. Customers can create their own combination of toppings for 50 cents each (some of the toppings count as two and cost $1). They also offer some delicious specialty pizzas, like the “Bleu Pear,” topped with mozzarella, pears, Bleu cheese, and pine nuts, for only $7.75. The pizza crust is tender and crispy and the toppings are always very fresh. Esquire also offers soups, salads, lunch specials and a surprisingly great salad bar (Monday through Friday 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.), so it is very popular spot to grab lunch Downtown during the work week.

The bar has an extremely friendly atmosphere, and the staff is never condescending or pretentious. Ever been to a bar and treated like the staff member was inconvenienced by your presence, or they were doing you a favor by taking time from socializing to serve you? Never at Esquire; the staff is attentive and conscientious, and the ambience is warm and welcoming. The bar is very open and well lit, and there are plenty of places to sit. They have two spacious bar areas; one room has four very nice pool tables, rented at hourly rates. There is also quite a bit of outdoor seating.

Whether you’re looking for an affordable, high quality lunch, a delicious salmon dinner, or some late night munchies, you cannot go wrong at Esquire Lounge. Bring a friend and have a great meal, or stop in for a drink, have a sandwich, and make some new friends. Whatever the occasion, no matter what time of day, you can count on Esquire for delicious food served by a friendly, professional, and courteous staff.

Esquire Lounge is located at 106 N Walnut St, Champaign, and open daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., with food service until 1 a.m. 

All photos by Jim Singer. 

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