Watson’s Shack & Rail is Finally Here!

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the soft opening of the elusive Watson’s Shack and Rail on Wednesday evening. I’m sure many of you were beginning to think this night would never happen, but it has come, and it was delicious! After anxiously waiting to try this food I had high hopes. I have to say I was not disappointed. Not only was the food super yummy, it was a really fun time!


The exterior of Watson’s had very cool urban feel and I love their logo.


When I opened the front door I was met with the sweet smell of fresh wood and fried chicken. Heavenly! We were seated quickly and I had a chance to look around. The owners, and one of their father’s I learned, really paid attention to every detail in the design of the interior. They kept the beautiful ceiling that was originally in Boltini’s Lounge. Thank goodness!


The cozy little spot up front where they feature local musicians is situated behind an iron railing that was also from Boltini’s. The beautiful honey colored bar was crafted by Lucent Designworks with some of the wood coming from the Woodshop over at Parkland College. It really was a showstopper! They have big screen tv’s at the bar where you can catch the big game. That night it was Illinois vs. Rutger’s!


Over the bar I noticed a gorgeous glass owl perched on a large tree. The way the lights shone through the beautiful brown glass made it glisten and shine. One of the owners, Alec Gillespie, heard me ask about the art and he told me that it was created by local artist Jason Mack. I’m definitely looking him up!


Alec was so kind and took the time to tell me all about the artwork and interior of the place. The feed sacks on the wall were designed by Sean Baird’s father. He is a rather handy fellow I’ve come to find. He helped refurbish the cases on the wall that display musical instruments. One of which he fashioned from an old cigar box. Rick Zindars made the handles on the inner doors from repurposed wood on Alec’s property in Fisher.

Seriously, the interior is really cool and it makes you wanna stay and hang out.


Okay enough about the interior onto the food!

We started by ordering drinks, I brought my Step dad and fellow foodie along with me. The drink list is extensive and the waitress told me the wine list was specifically chosen to pair well with chicken. Pretty sweet! I had the Kentucky Slushie for $6 and my Stepdad had a Watson’s Wabbit for $7. The drinks were frosty cold and fruity. I could really taste the lemonade and peach tea in my drink. It was definitely a strong one! The Wabbit had a nice bright carrot flavor and wasn’t too strong.


Then it was onto the appetizer’s. The crab hushpuppies were fried to the perfect color and had a nice mild flavor of fresh crab. The cajun remoulade sauce had a great spicy kick.


The Pimento cheese and crackers were a pleasant surprise! I don’t like pimento cheese. Never have and never thought I would. That being said I have to tell you that I loved it. It was tangy and creamy with a nice smoky flavor to it. I found myself grabbing cracker after cracker and slathering them with the cheesy goodness.


Next we had the difficult decision of our main course selections. We finally chose the Nashville Hot Chicken for $11 and Chelsea’s Shameless Plea for $16. Funny enough I forgot to ask about the name Chelsea’s. Oh well, next time. We also got the light chicken with a selection of sauces. The Nashville’s Hot Chicken lived up to it’s name. It was dang spicy and it built as you ate it. Luckily, I like spice so I was lovin’ it!


Chelsea’s Shameless Plea was a platter of chicken and waffles with apple cinnamon butter, maple syrup and collard greens. The fried chicken had a crispy exterior and was seasoned perfectly. The waffle drowned in the maple syrup and apple cinnamon butter was a treat for the senses. The outside of the waffle was golden brown, hot and crispy and the inside was tender and soft. I got a bite of everything together and it was like a beautiful song. It all worked! I don’t care for greens but they were seasoned and cooked well, tender and had a nice bite.


The light meat was tender and juicy. The chicken skin was so crispy and flavorful. The hot sauce was great, but I have to admit I enjoyed the caesar sauce the best. It was light and airy and helped to cool some of the spicier dishes. I wish we would have tried some sides but like I said before, next time.


Speaking of cooling off we decided to try two more drinks, the Gorky park Mule for $6 and a ‘Sculpin’ the night away’ for $11. The frozen mule had spicy ginger beer, lime juice and vodka topped with lime zest. It was really good for cooling down after that Nashville Hot Chicken.


‘Sculpin the night away’ had Sculpin Grapefruit IPA (a full can), tequila, fresh grapefuit juice and agave. It was a strong one but also had nice bite from the grapefruit, finished with a slight sweetness from the agave.


I had to end the night with dessert of course. They have a pie of the day for $5 supplied by Kaya Tate from Hopscotch Bakery in Urbana. You can add ice cream for $2. On this particular evening the pie was a gorgeous Salted Honey Pie with fresh vanilla ice cream. The pie was a total win. The crust was flaky and rich, and filling was thick and gooey. It had an amazing sugary crust almost like a creme brûlée. I must have this pie again as soon as possible! The ice cream was smooth and full of fresh vanilla flavor. Good stuff.


The owners have managed to create a relaxed hang out that pays homage to local food, local materials, and local musical artists. The environment they’ve created is filled with energy and fun. The grub isn’t too shabby either. I just wish I didn’t have to wait until the Grand Opening on February 12th to have the food again. It should be a really great night. They’ll be featuring the Hot Iron String Band, with special guest Dan Andree on the fiddle. I can’t wait! Hope to see you all there!

Watson’s Shack & Rail
211 N Neil Street
Champaign, IL


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Chance McDade says:

    “The beautiful honey colored bar – that was a showstopper”, as well as the other beautiful woodwork at Watson’s, was actually crafted by Lucent Designworks, a local fine woodworking and design business headed by Kevin and Wyatt Bunn. Some of the wood was purchased thru C-U Woodshop.

    1. I’ll make sure I edit the article to reflect this. Thank you!

  2. Chris says:

    The door handles were made by another craftsman. Not mentioned in your article. Some of your info is incorrect

    1. In the article I mentioned one of the owners father’s made the door handles.

  3. chris says:

    Nope it was Rick Zindars

    1. I’m just going by what the owner told me. I will contact him and do some double checking.

    2. Okay, I made all of the corrections. 🙂 Thank you again for the heads up!

  4. Neil Culpepper says:

    Rick Zindars actually did the custom door handles. I was at his house watching him do them. He does gorgeous work. I’m looking forward to visiting the new restaurant, I’ve heard all great things about it from my customers!!!

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