Smile Politely

Savor brilliant breakfast for cheap at Sam’s Cafe

As a longtime C-U Townie, I’m ashamed to say I have never been to Sam’s Café. I have no excuse. I love Downtown Champaign, and I’ve walked by the venerable breakfast and lunch joint several times.

I love breakfast. I love quaint locally-owned and operated businesses. How have I not been to Sam’s Café? Rather than come up with some lame excuse equivalent to the dog ate my homework (yes kids, we used to do homework on actual paper), I decided to rectify this egregious oversight and pay a visit to Sam’s Café for breakfast. What I found was a remarkable café that offers the breakfast staples you would expect from a café, but some signature dishes that are wonderfully unique. 

Inside Sam's Cafe in Downtown Champaign, there is a counter in front of a sun-soaked window. There are stacks of cups beside a gallery wall of framed images. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

The layout is nice and simple: several tables and chairs, five stools at the counter, and an open kitchen where you can see Sam work his magic on the flattop. Nothing is more mesmerizing than seeing someone work (what seems to be) a thousand items at once on a flattop.

The place was packed and so was the grill. This place was so cozy, comfy, and old school I kept expecting to see Mel Sharples behind the grill and Flo yelling “kiss my grits”. If you don’t get the reference, congratulations, you likely have longer to live than I do (Google 70s sitcoms). The sounds of plates clanking, coffee pouring, and the spatula pinging on the grill, all add to the total café experience. If you look up, you can see the ceiling tiles donned with businesses past and present advertisements.

On a white plate, there is Sam's Cafe's signature French Toast with crispy edges and a small pile of powdered sugar. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

My wife asked our server what he recommended. He suggested Gus’ famous French toast ($7 full, $4 half order). We ordered the half order, so we had room to try more items. This is without a doubt the most unique French toast I have ever enjoyed. I’m not exactly sure how it is made, but it looks like it is a batter poured on the griddle. This allowed the French toast to get a very crisp crunchy exterior while being fluffy on the inside.

When it first came to the table, it resembled a pancake, but it was so much more — and extremely good. Finished with powdered sugar, it was a real treat. The syrup provided had a depth of flavor that really complemented this signature dish.

On a gray table, there is a white plate with breakfast food: sausage patty, beef hash, and two eggs over easy. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

If a breakfast place offers corned beef hash, there is an 83.8% chance I’ll order it (and you thought Sabermetrics was just for baseball). I ordered two eggs over easy, sausage patties, and pancakes ($6.45) and a half order of corned beef hash ($2.10). If you like sunny side up eggs, order them here. A table next to us had sunny side up eggs, and they looked perfect. Next time, that is what I’m ordering.

My eggs were cooked perfectly. The yolk oozed out, so I could dip my patties and hash in them for added flavor. The sausage patties had a perfect crust from cooking on a flattop, and the hash was very flavorful and filling.

On a white plate, there is a stack of pancakes drizzled with syrup. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

The pancakes were wonderful, and the syrup at the table was very tasty. Another plus is they syrup at the table is in a generous bottle, so pour it on!

On a white plate, shredded hashrbowns are cooked and crispy in spots. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

We also ordered a half order of hash browns ($1.60). Yeah, you read that right, $1.60! It was a generous serving and cooked perfectly as expected. The half orders here are reasonably priced and a great way to sample a variety of food. Consider all of the food covered in this review cost us a grand total of $14.15 + tax and tip. It is fitting that Sam’s Café is cash only. There is something nostalgic about leaving tip money on the table. Also, I could pay tribute to my dad, hand the server the cash, and tell the server not to spend it all in one place.

If you have never been to Sam’s Café, don’t wait as long as I did to enjoy it. It has all of the elements of a throwback to yesteryear, and the food is really damn good which, of course, is critical. The servers are knowledgeable and friendly as are the customers. I’m already looking forward to my next visit, so get the sunny side up eggs ready, Sam!

Sam’s Café
115 N Walnut St
Su 7a-1p
M-F 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sa 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.  

Top image by Carl Busch.

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