Many people are familiar with the term “safe spaces,” a concept popularized as memes criticizing them began to circulate the internet. However, safe spaces have been around for decades, and The Red Herring, named ironically after the “red scare” which was happening during the time of its founding, was one of the original safe spaces and continues to operate as one for the C-U community today. As a quirky, vegan-friendly restaurant, it originated in Urbana during the late 1960s as a place for free expression during a time when freedom of speech hung in the balance in the United States due to government promoted scares of socialism and communism.
“In this building, they said those laws did not apply here,” said Holly Curia, full-time manager of The Red Herring for the last six years. “So any sort of anti-government, anti-war rallies or meetings that were happening, this was the only safe space in town where that could happen.”
Located in the basement of a former Unitarian-Universalist church, which is now home to the Channing Murray Foundation, The Red Herring is a popular lunchtime hangout for both vegans and non-vegans alike. Featuring a menu that changes seasonally, the kitchen is always offering something new and fresh for its customer base. The restaurant’s food is sustainably supplied by local farmers, and the members of Red Herring are committed to being a part of the local, sustainable food movement. Some of the produce used at the restaurant is even grown on-site.
The Red Herring restaurant has been a completely vegetarian establishment since its founding and was perhaps one of the first in the country to advertise itself as such. But the establishment officially went 100% vegan back in 2013 when the head cook at the time wanted to take The Red Herring’s sustainable mission further. The restaurant’s menu currently features various soups, vegan burgers, salads and more.
The small basement hangout recently hosted a 52nd-anniversary celebration event, which was dubbed as its “Full Moon 52nd Birthday.” The event featured an open mic, as well as stories about the restaurant’s origins and history from Bill Taylor, the founder of the Red Herring.
On the Friday evening prior to its birthday celebration, The Red Herring hosted a drag show and queer dance party celebration. These evening celebrations happen outside the usual open lunchtime hours because while it is a restaurant, it’s also a part of the Channing Murray Foundation, a campus community center dedicated to “providing educational, artistic and cultural programs designed to be radically inclusive, social justice-centered and spiritually alive,” according to the foundation’s website.
This is a message to which the Red Herring is also committed.
“We’re always looking at ways to refine our practices, to be more environmentally friendly (and) more sustainable,” Curia said.
As a nonprofit organization, the restaurant relies on fundraising efforts from the community to help keep it in operation. The events of the month are used as a way to raise money and will continue for the remainder of the month of October. They recently launched a Facebook fundraising event, which community members and students can donate to now. All of the proceeds go directly through The Red Herring Project, which is committed to helping source local foods, developing sustainable updates and creating events such as this month’s birthday bash.
The Red Herring is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. It is also open on Wednesday evenings for Vegan Fusion night, which features a different international cuisine each week. Once a month the restaurant also hosts a brunch and nearly every Thursday night there is a Red Herring pop-up event at the Rose Bowl Tavern in downtown Urbana.
Interested community members can check out the restaurant’s Facebook page to see what items are currently on the menu. The page also contains information regarding where the organization will be hosting events around the community and how people can donate to its cause.