Red Herring vegan restaurant to celebrate 50th anniversary


Quentin Shaw

The Red Herring is a vegetarian restaurant located at 1209 W Oregon.

By Emma Palatnik, Assistant features editor

It was 1967 when the Red Herring first opened as a coffeehouse during the Vietnam War.

The vegan restaurant, located at 1209 W. Oregon St. in Urbana, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Red Herring opened as part of a plan to continue anti-war and civil rights activities. It was a center for activism and organizers met in its space.

“1967 was a significant time because it was when the Vietnam War was happening, and there was just so much of activism and progressive activism really starting to gain some speed in this country and grassroots movements for peace and justice,” Holly Curia, Red Herring head chef, said. “The Channing-Murray Foundation, who owns this building, was very sympathetic to those organizers at the time and welcomed them into the space.”

The Channing-Murray Foundation is a non-profit that began over 100 years ago. It is a campus ministry operating under the Unitarian Universalist church. The Red Herring is also a non-profit organization.

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The Unitarians and Universalists were two Protestant Christian sects that united in the late ’50s, Emmett Silver, Red Herring financial manager, said.

“They decided to keep this as a campus outreach program, which it already was very much so, but they wisely chose to keep it,” Claire Szoke, Channing-Murray Foundation executive director, said. “That is the quote-unquote church connection. But again we’re kind of noted around the campus and community for being very multi-faith, and people from all different backgrounds come.”

Szoke said the activist groups that met in the church matched what the foundation had been working on since at least the late ’50s. They wanted the restaurant to be a space where different opinions could be heard.

Over the decades, the Red Herring grew and expanded into the place it is today. In 1991, it transformed from a coffeehouse to a vegetarian restaurant, and in 2014, it became vegan.

“Now, we consider ourselves primarily a restaurant, we still consider ourselves a hub for activism and culture, multiculturalism and the arts,” Curia said. “But the restaurant, the vegan food, the vegetarian food, has kind of become our main practice downstairs at least, it’s what keeps us open.”

To honor their 50th anniversary, the restaurant team has plans for seven days of programming from Feb. 16 through Feb. 22. All programs pertain in some way to the organization’s history and missions.

To begin the week-long celebration, the Red Herring is hosting a contra—a type of folk dance involving long lines of couples—dance event. That is followed the next day with the main event—the 50th birthday party.

“That is going to be a mix of live music, the restaurant’s going to be open, we’re gonna have storytellers from the past, some of the founding members that Claire mentioned are going to be coming and telling us their take on how things got started,” Curia said. “We’ll have a lot of artifacts from the years on display like some vinyl records that were recorded here, poetry books, lots of art that was created.”

There also will be a raffle with items from the restaurant as well as from other local businesses.

All the musicians playing at the party are either current restaurant staff members or were involved at some point over the years.

Curia said it’s a tailored lineup to involve people that made an impact on the Red Herring and have talents to share.

Sunday’s programming includes a vegan cooking class in the restaurant. Monday night, they are holding an eco-justice gathering where local speakers will give presentations on their respective group’s projects. Tuesday includes an open mic night and Wednesday is a normal Wednesday night dinner. For the final program, the restaurant is doing a yoga and meditation wellness gathering on Thursday.

Wednesday nights, the Red Herring holds cultural dinners with rotating themes each week. According to Curia, changing the themes each week allows the restaurant to pay tribute to different parts of the world and traditional cuisines.

They create one platter that everyone gets that night with three or four different parts. The different foods are smaller portion sizes so customers can get a little taste of all the options.

The Red Herring staff works together to craft their menu, which rotates seasonally. They collaborate with local farms, like Sola Gratia and Blue Moon, to create their menu based on the produce available.

“Sola Gratia, by the way, donates a good portion of at least 10 percent, usually 20 percent of what they grow every year directly to the food bank, and then, people will buy,” Szoke said. “It’s a (Community Supported Agriculture), and then, people will buy shares, and they will donate it to the food bank.”

A big part of their mission now, Curia said, is whole food justice. So they focus on food that is local, in season, healthy, plant-based and organic if possible.

Even though it is housed in a church, the Red Herring staff includes people from many different backgrounds, and Szoke said this holds true for the people who dine at the restaurant as well.

Another aspect of the restaurant is its philanthropy component. Groups have fundraisers in the restaurant and in the chapel. They also meet in The Red Herring space in formal and informal capacities.

Fifty years later, the restaurant still holds true to the mission it opened with.

“There’s definitely nothing like this place in town,” Curia said.

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