Bringing Champaign-Urbana’s oldest operating restaurant back to life was no easy feat. It took a passion for historic preservation and restoration of a building of a former operating business to construct the Courier Café, now on its 32 year of serving C-U’s residents and visitors alike.
While this town isn’t exactly as densely populated or sizeable as Chicago, owner Allen Strong commends it for its diversity and the omnipresent community that seems to be responsible for this thriving business.
That being said, Allen has also expressed that his restaurant is one that gets taken for granted, because it has been an ingrained tradition in many of the town’s families. He speaks of regular patrons he has seen since they were young who have now grown to bring their young ones in tow. As I was speaking to him about the Courier, there was an overwhelming sense of pride in the fact that this was something he had brought back to life and has managed to continue serving the community as C-U’s restaurant count steadily grows.
And competition is fairly stiff. With eateries such as Black Dog and Siam Terrace also in the downtown Urbana vicinity, there are more places for nearby Urbana dwellers to patronize. According to Allen, upon opening the Courier Café, there were only about 78 restaurants in Champaign-Urbana. This number has since climbed to over 700 and counting.
Despite the rapid spread of new dining options in town, Allen told me that he focuses on how to keep the Courier a place that will maintain its spot as “woven into the fabric of this community.” He does that by keeping things the same, which might sound a bit counterintuitive, but it has worked for 32 years.
For instance, during our interview, Allen told me to open the menu and observe the numbers preceding each dish. He showed me the peculiarity of the lack of sequence in the numbers and explained that this is due to the waitstaff memorizing numbers in a certain order — particularly waiters who have been working at the Courier for over 30 years. Not only does the care of providing for the customers go beyond the idea of comfort through consistency, it extends to the people who work at the Courier as well. Though roles of patron and worker assume certain responsibilities and expectations, the consideration of both as people comforted by familiarity is what seemingly has kept the establishment open.
Allen has been able to start and oversee the successes of both the Courier Café and Silvercreek restaurants; he began his journey as a sort of entrepreneur out of necessity when he opened a deli on the University of Illinois campus years ago. Having owned a business in Chicago before coming to C-U for college, he realized he needed to fund his education somehow and bought a deli from a former owner who was enthusiastic to sell it.
Recovering from a campus fire, and with insurance only covering part of the cost to rebuild it, Allen had to raise money to keep it open for five more years before deciding that he wanted something more lucrative. He then restored and rebuilt a former newspaper site into the Courier Café, which has seen sales grow consistently every month for 17 years.
And it’s no wonder why this is true. The Courier boasts a beautifully stocked salad bar, the first of its kind here in Champaign-Urbana. With patrons weighing their salad by the ounce, it’s easy to fill a salad plate with so many high quality ingredients on hand. From basics such as romaine lettuce and cherry tomatoes to chickpea salad and couscous, the salad bar contains options for just about any discerning palate. The beets are an especially delightful addition and add a sweet and satisfying crunch while the aforementioned chickpeas and couscous provide a subtle salty contrast with the presence of curry-like spices. Each salad comes with a complimentary roll if the diner so chooses.
In addition to the salad bar, the Courier Café offers soups, sandwiches, burgers, and other hearty entrees on its menu. One of the more recognized and commended offerings on the menu is the reuben sandwich, which is prepared on freshly baked house-made bread with sauerkraut and a side of thousand island dressing and horseradish. Where other places may cloud the taste of each ingredient by piling on too much filling or dressing, this reuben was exceptionally constructed with each component coming through on its own, while combining together nicely. The corned beef was juicy and the sauerkraut had a slight tanginess that melded with the cheese that was present, but not overwhelming.
The care of the quality and freshness of ingredients at the Courier is epitomized through the food and the pride that Allen expresses because his restaurant bakes its own bread every morning and uses high quality components to produce food that continues to please customers old and new. He also emphasizes affordability for the dishes his staff prepares, which is important, as the town is populated with thousands of students who may have to pay their way through school much like he once did.
Although owning a successful restaurant business (or two) was not what Allen intended when he came here for college, he seems to address with pride a contentment with what direction his life has gone. His lucrative businesses have allowed him to raise a family and establish a stable life in the C-U community — one in which he is happy to be a part of, as he fully supports other local businesses. In his own right, he has brought a landmark back to life that is greater than any opportunity the city would have offered. And the fact that regular patrons, as well as those new to town, flock to the Courier Café based on little-to-no marketing or advertising speaks for itself.