The Red Herring, a beloved vegan restaurant just east of the quad in Urbana, has been a hub of progressivism and political activism over the past 50 years. This campus institution, which began as a coffee house, has nurtured musical talent and activist endeavors from the Civil Rights movement to immigration reform. Vern Fein, local (retired) special educator, pastor, poet, and early volunteer will be sharing stories at the 50th anniverary event this Saturday. “As students, then, we needed a place to hang out so we started the coffee house...it is great to see that it is still serving people 50 years later, a true legacy. Of course we sold coffee and snacks, vegetarian restaurants still having not arrived in the Midwest yet, and had poetry readings and political speeches regularly from the stage.” Though it’s focus may have shifted to serving up quality vegan food to students and community members alike, it still maintains threads of the past: through live music, poetry readings, and just being a space where progressive groups can gather, plan, and create change.


The Red Herring emerged at a volatile time in the nation, the state, and definitely on campuses across the country. The Free Speech Movement, originating at Berkeley, arose when a group of students protested the university’s refusal to allow a member of the Communist Party to speak. The University of Illinois saw it's share of controversy on this subject as well, and a similar movement emerged. “In 1948, in Illinois, a very conservative Illinois senator, Charles Clabaugh, got a similar bill passed,” said Fein, “and a grad student who had moved here from Berkeley, got wind of it and he and I and a few others decided to bring a Communist speaker here and, of course, the U of I and its President Henry would not allow it. We began to rally and protest until finally, still without University permission, we brought a member of the CP from Chicago, Louis Dishkin, who spoke from the back of the Union to about 2,000. The University would not allow us to plug in a mic so we brought our own generator.”

Bill Taylor, a founder of the Red Herring who went on to start WRFU FM in the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center and create the Kalyx Center for Sustainability near Allerton Park in Monticello, will also be sharing stories this Saturday. He elaborated on the inception of this space:

“So, when Students for Free Speech won the battle over the Clabaugh Act over the summer of 1967, they still had the organization of 50 co-equal challengers to the act, with a warm feeling for the basement space of Channing-Murray...the only place where they could get a meeting spot...and they had their treasury of $50!  To maintain the solidarity, after they returned to campus in the fall, they proposed a coffee house. The CM board was kinda dubious, but they agreed to let it happen, but requiring that I be the treasurer. I was the building manager...not really a part of SFS, but I had been around for their meetings. SFS put Steve Schmidt in charge as manager, but he just disappeared after two weeks, and I kinda became manager by default.”

It’s impossible to separate The Red Herring from the Channing-Murray Foundation, which continues to support and house the restaurant. With the motto: Radically inclusive, social justice centered, spiritually alive, the Unitarian Universalist campus-community center has in many ways cultivated those values through the outreach of The Red Herring. “We’ve had a long history of social activism depending on what the times are,” says Claire Szoke, Executive Director of the foundation. “In the 60’s it was free speech and civil rights. Then that morphed into protest against the Vietnam War. Later we were one of the groups that was part of the sanctuary movement to welcome political refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador who couldn’t get asylum, and now more recently we’ve had a lot of focus on different kinds of environmental issues and certainly immigration reform.”

This weekend kicks off a weeklong celebration of the 50 year history of the Red Herring, beginning with a birthday party this Saturday, February 17th, beginning at 4:30 p.m. The event is truly an homage to the establishment’s roots, featuring live music, storytelling, a display of memorabilia, and of course, vegan food. The celebration continues throughout next week, with an eclectic line-up of events that all tie-in to the history and present life of the restaurant. Emmett Silver, financial manager and really jack-of-all-trades at the restaurant, spoke about the process of putting together such a momentous event.

“Music had to have a role. Through the history we’ve had a major focus on music and the arts and culture. We’ve had a poetry group meet here, open mics have been a longstanding tradition here. Then we had a person on our board who was a contra dance enthusiast so we decided to have that as a part of our celebration as well. Then it grew to well why don’t we include some other major topics such as eco-justice and wellness and devote evenings to those. It’s become a full week of events.”

Music has indeed played a role throughout the history of The Red Herring, most notably as the training ground for folk artist Dan Fogelberg. These days the restaurant hosts Coffee House Open Mic nights where anyone is welcome to share their musical talents. Many former managers of the restaurant/coffee house will be returning to the stage on Saturday, and current volunteers and friends will be performing as well.

Check out these amazing flyers, provided by Bill Taylor, that give a glimpse into The Red Herring's past.

All are invited to be a part of the celebration. If you miss Saturday's main event, never fear. The restaurant will be hosting an entire "golden" week, with a wide variety of ways to experience what The Red Herring has to offer, including Contra Dancing (happening tonight!), an Open Mic night, an eco-justice symposium, a wellness day, and one of the restaurant's popular Fusion dinners. You can go to their Facebook page to find details for each event.

Cover photo is mine, additional photos from The Red Herring Facebook page and of memoribilia provided by Bill Taylor.