CHAMPAIGN – When David Spears and Sharon Owens opened an offbeat restaurant called Radio Maria in downtown Champaign, they hoped it would leave them some time to continue their other careers as artists.
A decade later, they say, the restaurant itself has become their artwork.
"You just sort of apply the same creativity to a different medium," said Owens, a painter whose work covers the walls of Radio Maria at 119 N. Walnut St.
She and Spears, a sculptor, strive to stretch their customers' imagination and taste buds with the cuisine and decor in Radio Maria.
They're also in the process of stretching their space with an addition that will double the restaurant's size and add the bar area it lacks.
The addition is under construction next door, in the former Vintage Antiques store, and will be ready to open in a couple of months, Spears said.
Creating with food and building
Spears remembers opening Radio Maria ahead of the swell of downtown night spots, and people saying their restaurant probably wouldn't last more than a couple of months.
"We're really thrilled the community embraces us," he said.
The two former students of the University of Illinois – where Spears earned a master's degree in sculpture and Owens graduated with a degree in fine arts – opened Radio Maria because they had an interest in downtown revival and wanted to run their own business.
Spears said they thought of undertaking such a venture in Cincinnati, which has a downtown they admire. But when the building in downtown Champaign became available, they jumped at the opportunity and unleashed their creativity on a menu of unique foods served in a unique setting.
If you want a burger and fries, this isn't your place.
Radio Maria's menu has a heavy influence of Spanish and Latin American dishes and also offers some Caribbean, African and Indian cuisine, Owens said.
Among the appetizers are duck sausage with a chipotle-orange-whiskey sauce served with garlic toast and figs ground with pistachios, broiled with Gorgonzola cheese and drizzled with honey. A specialty on the dinner menu is a coffee-crusted filet with vanilla bean sauce.
Radio Maria's Sunday brunch also resists the conventional, with frequently changing main courses and food served off the menu instead of buffet-style.
"Here, you get a well-crafted plate – and you get enough to eat, believe me," Spears said.
The vivid decor incorporates a lot of recycled materials. The owners made the tables in the original restaurant out of old doors. And in the new space, Spears and Owens are using a set of double doors from the old county sheriff's building, windows from the Herff Jones Cap & Gown Division and stair treads from the Illiana Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Danville, Spears said. The stair treads will be used as footrests at the new bar.
"We're big friends of PACA (the Preservation and Conservation Association)," Owens said with a laugh.
Spears – who said his artistic pursuits have veered increasingly into functional design – made light fixtures for the original restaurant space and new hanging fixtures out of old vacuum tubes for the bar area.
More to offer
Radio Maria currently seats about 84 people inside and another 20 or 30 at outdoor tables when the weather is nice. The addition will add seating for another 80 customers inside and a few more tables outside, Spears said.
With the new space, he and Owens said, they'll also be able to start offering special events such as beer-tasting dinners – something they haven't been able to do because they need all their tables.
Owens and Spears said they're also breaking down and adding deep fat fryers. When they started out, they resisted anything so conventional, but Owens said there are so many new gourmet foods for which friers are needed.
Will they start serving French fries? Maybe, Owens said, but if they do, count on some unique version of them.
The addition will be opened as a tapas bar, featuring tapas (small plates of food) and a full drinks menu.
Radio Maria is already fully stocked in the liquor department, but with the new bar will be expanding the wine and beer selection substantially, Owens and Spears said.
Owens said adding the tapas menu should draw more students, who may think Radio Maria is too upscale with its lunches running $6 to $9 and dinners ranging from about $11 to $23.
"Students are so stretched for money, and they think we are this place for a big expensive dinner," she added.
The bar is something Owens and Spears said they wanted to include from the start, but city code prohibited it because they didn't have enough tables, Spears said. So when customers had a wait, the Radio Maria staff would direct them to a nearby coffee shop or bar and call them on their cellphones when their tables were ready.
Radio Maria's landlord, Jeff Mellander, said in the restaurant's early years, there wasn't that much competition downtown – so there wasn't much risk of losing those waiting customers to other establishments. But with so many new options downtown, that's not the case anymore.
Mellander said he's watched Radio Maria attract a steady crowd over the years, and he predicts the new bar will make it more successful.
"I think Radio Maria has been great," he added.
"They offer a unique environment, and certainly this new space is going to be a continuation of David and Sharon's creativity."