CHAMPAIGN — Black Dog Smoke & Ale House plans to open a second location, in the former railroad freight station in downtown Champaign, the restaurant's owners said.
The popular barbecue restaurant opened in the former Tod & John's tavern space at 201 N. Broadway Ave., U, in 2009, and has attracted crowds and rave reviews since then.
This time, Black Dog plans to curl up in what some people call "the old, old train station" just north of the former Champaign train station at 116 N. Chestnut St., C.
The long, narrow building stands just east of Memphis on Main at 55 Main St., C, and the former Trader's World pawn shop at 57 Main St., C.
"It's an old building with character, and its width is similar to what we have here" in Urbana, said Mike Cochran, who co-owns Black Dog with Pedro Heller.
Heller said he doesn't expect the new restaurant to open until sometime in 2014, since a lot of work is needed to get the building in shape.
"I hope that it's less than a year before it's ready to go," he said.
Heller said he expects it will take "about $1 million" to rehabilitate the building, not counting furnishings that will be needed. Right now, it's "just a shell" that needs a new foundation, roof repairs and utility service, he said.
The Black Dog operators signed a lease last week, but Heller said there are still contingencies that need to be worked out.
Rumors about Black Dog opening a second location in downtown Champaign have swirled around the community for months, some focusing on sites that Cochran and Heller never seriously considered.
Heller said the two also gave thought to expanding the Urbana location, and that option may be considered "down the road."
The menu at the new location is expected to be identical to Urbana's, which features rib tips, burnt ends, smoked catfish, pulled pork sandwiches and a variety of sauces and beers.
Heller said he expects the new location to employ between 30 and 50 full- and part-time employees. The new place is projected to accommodate about 100 customers, if outdoor seating is included.
Hours are likely to be similar to Urbana's — perhaps 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. — and Cochran said he hopes the decor at the new place will include "warm colors" and evoke "warm feelings."
Heller said he initially thought the project couldn't work because the building was too narrow, but he said when building owner Dr. William Youngerman "got excited" about the project, the pieces began to fall in place.
The brick building is only about 20 feet wide, but about seven times as long, with massive barn-like doors that have glass panes.
Passengers on Amtrak trains and motorists on North First Street probably know the building best for the boosterish slogan on its shingled roof: "Champaign-Urbana ... Pop. 93,500 ... Fastest Growing Community in Downstate Illinois."
City planner T.J. Blakeman, a buff of downtown Champaign's architectural history, said the building dates from about 1899. It initially stood where the former passenger depot at 116 N. Chestnut St. stands today.
But in the 1920s, when that depot was planned and the railroad tracks were raised, the old station was moved to the north and dedicated to freight.
Those events were described in the book "History in Postcards: Champaign, Urbana and the University of Illinois," compiled by Willis C. Baker and Patricia L. Miller, and published in 1993.
As stated in that book, "In 1924, the current station was built, and the old building was moved 114 feet north for use as a freight depot. The 1924 project also raised the tracks to expand the east-west street viaduct system in Champaign."
In more recent years, the building has been used by Youngerman for storage, Blakeman said. Local photographers have also used it as a background setting for portraits.
Blakeman, whose work as executive director of the Champaign Center Partnership included promoting downtown Champaign, said he sees great potential in the restaurant project.
"I'm very excited about the prospects of having new life, particularly for that part of downtown," he said.
Black Dog has made its mark in the culinary world in a relatively short time.
In 2011 — two years after it opened — participants in a News-Gazette reader poll named Black Dog the "best restaurant" in the area.
Earlier this year it was touted as one of "America's Five Best BBQ Hot Spots" in Maxim magazine. The writer, Quinn Myers, said Black Dog "does everything right." He ranked it with barbecue restaurants in New Orleans; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; and Kansas City, Mo.