Restaurant closures taking a bite out of downtown Champaign


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CHAMPAIGN — If you called Radio Maria on Thursday, you'd hear a recording wishing you a happy holiday and a warning that the restaurant would be closed Monday through Wednesday of this week.

It remained closed at its usual opening hour at 4 p.m. Thursday, however, and a new sign on the door read, simply, "closed."

Radio Maria co-owner David Spears didn't return a call to The News-Gazette about the restaurant's status. And Debby Auble, the broker/owner at Ward & Associates who's had the restaurant listed for sale, said she couldn't say what plans were for it beyond Thursday.

"We're working on something," she said.

The listing for Radio Maria said the business was for sale for $199,000 and that the owners wanted to retire.

The restaurant passed its most recent routine inspection by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in November.

Chris Knight, owner of The Blind Pig, which sits across Walnut Street, said five Radio Maria employees came in Wednesday afternoon and said they'd just been laid off, "and one applied for a job."

Radio Maria first opened more than two decades ago at 119 N. Walnut St. Its neighboring restaurant at 113 N. Walnut St., Bacaro, has posted plans to close for good after 18 years in business. The last dinner at Bacaro will be served on New Year's Eve, according to the post.

That will follow two other recent closings nearby on Main Street — Memphis on Main, which closed in November, and Merry Ann's Diner, which closed in July.

PNC Bank will also be moving out of its building at Walnut and Main in January — though that building has been purchased by the owner of KoFusion restaurants, Janet Bubin.

Rob Kowalski, assistant planning and development director for the city, said there's a lot of restaurant and bar competition downtown, but closings tend to be followed by new establishments taking their place.

"It seems to be pretty fluid," he said.

Among the replacements for downtown Champaign bar/restaurant closings over the past year or so have been Neil St. Blues in the former Dublin's Pub and 301 Mongolia spaces, Bossa Nova in the former Snow Meets Coffee space and Sticky Rice in the former Wedge space.

Knight said fluctuations are likely related to a bit of both the individual operators and competition.

"To me, I love competition," he said. "I think the more bars and restaurants and coffee bars and bistros that open downtown, the better," he said.

Jackie Sampson, one of two managers at the longtime Esquire Lounge at 106 N. Walnut St., C, said business there has been busy and at normal levels.

Esquire has also been around a long time and has served fairly consistent food and beverages, she said, adding that's not to say that Radio Maria and Bacaro haven't.

What she can say is working in the service industry is a hard job, and it's a bit harder to find help than it used to be.

"We get less students applying for jobs than we used to," she said.