Check the temperature of a few University of Illinois students and you'll inevitably find they have Zook fever, as in Illini football head coach Ron Zook, who has taken the team from the bottom of the Big Ten standings to a Rose Bowl appearance last year. First-time visitors should be sure to set some time before or after the game to check out the mammoth campus, especially to take in the main Quad or the newer Engineering Quad. Frat row is usually full of rambunctious undergrads, if you're into taking part in that sort of thing. But at some point, you need to get to business: crashing the college pubs and eateries. So let's check out Champaign's best.
Best place to watch the game: Legends Bar and Grill (522 E. Green, 217-355-7674)
With memorabilia of Illini legend Harold "Red" Grange" on display, Legends further tailors to sports fans with an enormous projector screen on big game days—and never charges a cover. And for a bar usually rampant with undergrads at night, it's strikingly clean.
Where to eat before the game: Murphy's Pub (604 E. Green, 217-352-7275)
Campustown's most popular dive rarely charges a cover and attracts the experienced U of I upperclassman-and-grad-student crowd. Murphy's aces-in-the-hole: big, juicy burgers—the best in Champaign—and some dish called "Irish Nachos," a seemingly non-Irish order of waffle fries topped with sour cream, Monterey Jack cheese and salsa.
Where to eat after the game: Papa Del's Pizza (206 E. Green, 217-359-7700)
A U of I institution, Papa Del's provides Chicago deep-dish pizza that rivals the best of the Windy City. The 45-minute wait for a thick, filling pie is a bit of an Illini rite of passage, but it's especially satisfying after a victory at Memorial Stadium or Assembly Hall.
Best place to tailgate: The fields south of Kirby Avenue
On a campus notoriously surrounded by acres of fields, the ones across from Memorial Stadium on Saturday mornings are beautifully filled with orange-clad fans, content to toss the football around or to grill a couple of burgers. And with a winning team, things tend to get more and more rowdy and crowded off of Kirby, so come early.
Best of the nightlife: Blind Pig Co. (120 N. Walnut, 217-398-1532)
For undergrad nightlife mayhem, hit up Green Street after 10 p.m. But for a classy evening with nearly 30 beers on tap, hit up Blind Pig in downtown Champaign. Dark wood-lined walls, friendly bartenders, and live piano music equate to a far better experience than a hot, sticky campus bar.
Where to go if you care nothing about sports: Caffe Paradiso (801 S Lincoln Ave, Urbana, 217-384-6066)
Obscure indie music in the background, Christmas lights hung from the ceiling and a geographical dictionary for your reference needs. If you consider yourself the Bohemian type—or if you're in dire need of some strong Intelligentsia coffee—this is the place to be.
Follow us throughout the college football season as we highlight the entertainment options at nearby Midwestern schools. And be sure to check out our guide to Chicago tailgating.