Neil St. Blues, a southern-style cuisine restaurant with live music and a big city atmosphere located in the heart of Downtown Champaign, celebrates their 1-year anniversary this December! CCP spoke with owner Gayle Starks.
What was your inspiration for opening Neil Street Blues in Champaign?
I’ve always loved my community and wanted to invest in the community here. I would visit family and friends in larger cities like Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Louisville and loved the nightlife scene there. When my family would come visit here, we could go to nice restaurants to eat, but live music was kind of limited. So I said, “Well, why not try to do it all in one venue?” So our motto is “eat, drink, and dance,” and we like to do all three!
As a family-oriented restaurant, what is it like working with your family?
It’s the best thing ever! I have a great family; we are all very close. My mom stops in on occasion to help, my son is our general manager and my daughter helps in the kitchen, so it is really a family affair. My son is very professional and personable and carries a lot of the load. Without him, I don’t think I’d be able to do this. All of our workers are like family. We couldn’t do it without my good friend and coworker Bryan McMullan; he helps cover a lot of the nightlife for me because we are open until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. Thank goodness for our late night work crew! We all support one another.
Why was it important for you to locate Neil Street Blues in Downtown Champaign?
A lot of visitors to our community come through downtown. We wanted to be a nice addition to the restaurant scene here, and offer another option with a different style of cuisine. The nice thing about downtown is that a lot of the businesses are independently-owned and operated, so you get something that’s a little different. If you stick with the chain restaurants, it’s pretty much the same no matter where you go, but here you can try different flavors and experiences you can’t find anywhere else.
What southern-style flavors and items on the menu are your favorites?
That’s hard, because if it’s something I don’t like, I don’t put something on the menu! I love the BBQ ribs, the shrimp and grits, the fried catfish, and the jambalaya. The bread pudding is made by one of our chef’s wives and the banana pudding is made by my daughter. The strawberry shortcake cheesecake is also made in house – all three of those desserts are made in-house and delicious.
Your events calendar is robust! What are some upcoming features you’re excited about?
We’re going to have a real festive holiday season! We’re coming up on our 1-year anniversary party, which will be a masquerade ball in mid-December. We’re also going to have a New Year’s Eve bash, so we’re excited that people will be spending their New Year’s Eve with us! We’ll have a very special menu that is being developed right now as well as live entertainment with a real festive atmosphere, so we’re preparing for that as well!
How do you find your local talent and what other events do you host?
All of our talent for the most part is local, but we have had a few bands travel down from the Chicago area, a few even as far away as Mississippi for blues bands. We catch them en-route to Chicago or Indianapolis and they’ll stop by. We love local talent – we hope we’ll be instrumental in one day launching someone’s career. Our open mic night on Thursdays is a lot of fun; you can showcase your talent, whether it’s comedy, singing, poetry. Bingo’s a lot of fun, too. On Latin night, we offer free dance lessons before the music starts; no partners necessary, so we love for people to come by and have fun!
Now that you have been open for one year, what are you most excited for at Neil Street Blues in 2020?
In 2020, I’m really looking forward to expanding our entertainment even more. People really do enjoy the concept of doing more than just eating. We plan to offer live entertainment on weekdays as well. We’re also going to partner with local high school jazz bands to offer performances in January. We’re excited to host some Wednesday night fundraisers for community foundations supporting mental health and children’s activities. We also welcomed Chef McGhee a few months ago (formerly at Rantoul’s popular C&C Kitchen), and he will be helping us update the menu in summer 2020.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Here at Neil St. Blues, everyone is family! Southern food requires southern hospitality, so we make sure each of our guests feels at home. Finally, a lot of people think we’re just an entertainment venue and they miss out on the great food that we have. We’re open for lunch 7 days a week and we even have a brunch menu on the weekends that is growing in popularity. But with all of our great entertainment, the food is just the icing on the cake.
By Melinda Sevilla, Contributing Writer