A train runs by, blaring the horn to let pedestrians know to keep clear of the tracks. Inside Black Dog Smoke & Ale House in Champaign, the atmosphere remains the same. Dozens of diners enjoy barbeque, sip midday cocktails, and have a good time in the booths and at the bar. This is a regular day in the train-station-turned-restaurant in downtown Champaign. This atmosphere is one the owners, Pedro Heller and Mike Cochran, have been cultivating since day one. The orange walls glow, both to make people hungry and to emulate the firebox of a train, according to Mike. He wants the restaurant to be reminiscent of a pub, “casual and everyday, like the old ale houses in Chicago.”
This traditional American food house got its start in 2009 when the owners took over what used to be Todd and John’s, a thirty-year-old bar in Urbana. Pedro and Mike met each other at Esquire bar in Champaign, and got together to make this barbecue-cum-bar come to life. Mike spent a long time in the service industry thinking about new and innovative approaches, and said since he couldn’t get great barbecue and a great drink anywhere in the area, he’d made his own way. “The barbecue and pub atmosphere just fit.”
In 2015, Black Dog, which gets its name from Mike’s two rescue dogs, opened its second location in Champaign in what was the original train depot for the city. In 1924, the depot was moved 114 feet north for use as a freight depot, and to make room for a new train station. They hooked the entire building up to horses and trundled it along tracks, all while remaining open for business. The building is also known for displaying "Champaign-Urbana ... Pop. 93,500 ... Fastest Growing Community in Downstate Illinois" on the roof from the 1960’s to 2009, when Black Dog owners bought the building.
Mike and Pedro are committed to the Champaign-Urbana community. They advertise on Facebook to get the word out about local events. Mike acknowledges that “it would have been cheaper to do literally anything else [besides renovating an old building].” But he has an affinity for older buildings and loves to reuse them. Keeping old buildings in the C-U community is just another way Black Dog keeps their focus local.