Tucked away on Church Street you can find La Bahía Grill, a charming, new seafood restaurant in downtown Champaign. Bursting with color inside and out, La Bahía Grill is ready to shake up downtown with their mouthwatering and authentic cuisine styled after dishes from Nayarit, a state in western Mexico on the Pacific coast. We sat down with Magaly Avila (right) to hear how she and her partner, Leonel Carmona (left), are bringing a new style of Mexican cuisine and culture to Champaign.
La Bahía Grill is a proud member of the Champaign Center Partnership!
Tell me about yourself and how you got started with La Bahía Grill.
My name is Magaly Avila and I am a teacher. I have always wanted to open my own business, but La Bahía Grill is my partner, Leonel Carmona’s, dream. He has been in the restaurant industry since he was fourteen years old, back when he came to this country. He has worked in other restaurants in other town. He was inspired to improve the restaurants where he worked, but as a server, he never felt that he had an opportunity to make changes. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to work somewhere that he owned.
We learned how to start a restaurant and explored what we could bring to the community. We settled on Mexican-style seafood because we love it so much. Leonel was working in a Mexican seafood restaurant in Indiana, so he learned everything he could about that style so that he was comfortable with cooking for more people. When he came back from Indiana, we got this place and just started making it our own. Leonel is very brave, and his determination is amazing to me.
Why did you choose downtown Champaign as the location for La Bahía?
We really like downtown. We like the nightlife and going to bars. We were really big fans of Soma when it was open because they had their Latin Nights. We also noticed that there wasn’t a lot of places for the Mexican, Hispanic, and Latinx populations, so we wanted to have something for people to enjoy downtown. It is just a nice little area here [on Church Street] with a lot of foot traffic.
We started with a very soft opening with just family and friends, and we have slowly kept growing through word of mouth. It’s been a good experience and we have gotten some great feedback about bringing something different to the area which is what we want.
Being a restaurant with dishes that are unique to the area, can you tell me about what’s popular and what you think people should try when they visit La Bahía?
We really have two different kinds of foods here, the seafood and the non-seafood, and there are popular dishes from each.
One of our popular non-seafood options is called La Bahía. It is really a safe choice for everyone. It is a bed of rice, topped with chicken, steak, and shrimp covered in cheese sauce. I feel like that is one that people usually get a lot. Another one of my non-seafood favorites is the Pollo Crema & Chipotle. It is grilled chicken with cream and chipotle sauce. Every time I recommend this dish, customers always liked it.
A great seafood option is the Molcajete Korita and has different types of fish, shrimp, octopus, crab legs, and scallops cooked in our homemade sauce, spicy or mild.
We also offer different sides with the dishes instead and my favorite from those is the Green Spaghetti. It’s past and the sauce is made with poblano peppers, cream cheese, cilantro and a few more things. You can get an entire entrée of the Green Spaghetti, called Maggie’s Spaghetti, named after me… I may be biased with that one.
We worked on our menu little by little for the whole year before we opened, and we experimented with different recipes and ingredients to find the right taste and style.
La Bahía is filled with tons of really authentic and unique artwork, including a mural of Frida Kahlo on the wall. Can you tell me the significance of bringing this type of artwork into your restaurant?
We wanted something that represented our culture and I feel like Frida is someone that is very well known. We were so lucky to find a visual artist [Saicker] who did this mural because he is from Mexico City and he is my friend’s brother-in-law, so it just felt right. We pitched our idea to him and he came up with a plan. There is meaning behind each element represented in the mural. The process of seeing the whole thing come to life was a nice experience.
My friend and I painted the Downtown Champaign sign as well as most of the other art in the restaurant. The mural and all of the art is just something that we wanted people to see and identify with the restaurant. As a teacher, there a lot of other ways that I want to use art and our space to help educate people about our culture.
Do you have anything coming up that you would like to share with the community?
Right now, we are in the process of planning karaoke nights. We did it for Cinco de Mayo and we want to do it more often. There were a lot of people that were singing, eating, drinking, and having a good time. We are looking for the right person to emcee and animate everything because our customers that are both non-Hispanic and Hispanic. We are also thinking about starting Latin Nights with music and dancing and possibly become a place people come to after the other bars close. We just have a lot of ideas that we are really excited about bringing to the community.