Smile Politely

The Esquire Lounge is a classic spot for a good meal and a cold drink

The Esquire Lounge holds a special place in my heart. Growing up in Champaign-Urbana, The Esquire is where the adults had a casual lunch or dinner. Children were typically taken to a place like The Ground Round — if you are under 40, Google it.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved The Ground Round, but there is something special about a place where I felt I was finally adult enough to enjoy. The night before my first professional job interview in Champaign, there was no doubt where I was having an adult dinner. I enjoyed The Esquire’s famous ribeye steak sandwich and a Tucher Hefeweizen in a tall chilled glass — and I got the job. There was one striking similarity between The Ground Round and The Esquire; both allowed you to eat peanuts and throw the shells on the floor. Alas, the pandemic put an end to the peanuts at The Esquire, but if you really miss it, simply buy a bag of peanuts and throw the shells on the floor at home. Maybe buy a Roomba first. Peanuts notwithstanding, I can promise you there are plenty of reasons to get out to The Esquire and enjoy yourself. 

Two cocktails sit on a wooden table at The Esquire in Champaign. The one of the left is a pink drink in a hurricane glass, and the one on the right is a gin martini. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

Let’s start with drinks, shall we? Typically, I prefer vodka martinis, but for whatever reason the gin martinis ($5.75 to $8.25, depending on the gin) are my go-to at The Esquire. They are consistently very tasty, balanced with the right amount of vermouth, and shaken so cold you can ice skate across the top. They are also very generous in size. More than a couple of these, and I’m getting an Uber or a room at the Hyatt downtown.

My wife enjoyed a strawberry lemonade slushie ($5.75). If you aren’t sure about what flavor slushie you would prefer, they are very happy to give you a sample. And, like their drinks, their samples are very generous — not just a drop in a thimble. In fact, the sample was enough for both of us to enjoy a taste. The strawberry lemonade slushie had a perfect balance between the sweet strawberry and tart lemonade. Their signature slushie, pineapple margarita, is a must try with the upcoming summer days. They have ample outdoor seating if you prefer your slushies in the sun.

On a yellow plate covered completely with parchment paper, there are many fried dumplings. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

Two of my favorite menu items were introduced to me by close friends. I loved The Esquire’s sandwiches so much that I never considered the Asian dumplings ($5.50) and specialty pizza ($9.00). A friend I’ve known since 8th grade insisted I try the dumplings, and now I get them almost every visit. The texture and taste were very good. The dumplings were nice and soft with crisp edges and a yummy filling. They were served with an insanely good sweet chili sauce. And 16 dumplings for $5.50? Makes room in the budget for another martini. My only issue is that I often burn my mouth because I cannot wait for them to cool when the dumplings arrive hot to the table.

Two pizzas sit on two white circular plates on a wooden table at The Esquire in Champaign. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

My wife and I love The Esquire’s Greek pizza ($9.00) and typically share this pie with some appetizers as our meal, but in the interest of research and content, we also ordered the white garlic pizza ($9.00). The white garlic pizza has roasted garlic, Mozzarella, sausage, and red onion on a wonderfully-cut, thin crust that was crisp on the edges and chewy in the middle. The tastes were all present and not one overwhelmed the other. We thoroughly enjoyed our first white garlic pizza.

The Greek pizza had tomato sauce, Mozzarella, red peppers, kalamata olives, sausage, artichoke hearts, and feta cheese on the same delicious crust. The sweet of the sauce marries well with the saltiness of the olives, artichoke hearts, and feta cheese. This pizza had serious flavor and generous toppings. I was tempted to have an ice-cold beer with it, but an ice-cold water with lemon ($0!) was perfectly refreshing.

A sliced, grilled sausage on a grilled bun with toppings and a pickle on the side are on parchment paper at The Esquire. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch. 

Heinkel sausages are made in Decatur, Illinois, and The Esquire features Heinkel polish sausage ($5.50) as one of their sandwich options. It is a third-pound grilled sausage served on a tasty, soft onion roll. I chose to substitute coleslaw ($1.75) as my side instead of the chips it came with. I’m a huge onion roll fan, and I could eat this one with nothing in between and be a happy guy, but put a grilled polish sausage on it with onions, tomato, lettuce, and a pickle on the side? That’s glorious. The sausage was split down the middle and had perfect grill marks. The sausage was high quality and has that snap most people love when you bite into it. If you are a polish sausage fan, this is a must try. 

There is a reason The Esquire Lounge is a venerable institution that was thriving long before Downtown Champaign was even a thing. It is more than just great service and food; the people that work there always seem to be in a good mood. That is a tough thing to accomplish unless you truly love what you do and are treated well by management and customers. Everyone feels like a regular even if they aren’t: a true sense of community. Oh, and if you crave a little mystery during your trip, ask your server who Zeke T. is and why he is he on every bill!

The Esquire Lounge
106 N Walnut
11 a.m. to midnight, everyday

Top image by Carl Busch.

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