If you have ever visited downtown Champaign, you probably noticed that most shops are packed tightly together, some with no spaces between them, while others have the smallest of alleyways. Radio Maria sits snugly on the corner of Walnut and Taylor. Looking above the outside parapet, the name “Witt” is carved in stone. Many Champaign buildings are named after important family members or founders of the town, similar to downtown Urbana’s named alleyways.
The Radio Maria building has been many things since its inception. It began as a glass store in the 1920’s, owned by T.M. Bacon and Son (who still exist at a different location downtown). Then, the building became a paint store where Sharon Owens, co-owner of Radio Maria, used to shop. When Sharon bought the building in 1996, she combined the old paint store with the livery and garage next door, and Radio Maria was born.
Though Radio Maria is now a fixture of downtown Champaign, owners Sharon Owens and David Spears never intended to open a restaurant. Before buying the space, Sharon was an art student, and in her words “Artists are not usually employed as artists” so she ended up doing a lot of restaurant work to supplement her art career. The same was true for her husband and partner, David. They had been experimenting with funky cuisines with their friends at dinner parties, and became inspired to open a restaurant with the goal of having a “creative restaurant.” According to Sharon, “At the time you’d go to Chicago and the meals were fantastic. We wanted that experience here.” They decided to create a menu inspired by their world travels, focusing especially on Spanish and Latin cuisine, but always with their unique, creative flair.
David was interested in architecture and interior design, so he did the remodeling, and Sharon painted walls and filled the tables and menu covers with ephemera. Soon they had their very own restaurant. Now all they needed was a name. Sharon and David wanted a name that did not signify a certain cuisine. They were inspired by Radio Free Europe, and drew from it for the first half of the name. Despite popular belief, Sharon is not the famed “Maria” of the restaurant’s name–they have a friend and waitress named Maria, and the inspiration came from her. Radio Maria has an emphasis on cooking local and making things from scratch. “Cooking is art,” Sharon said, “and I want this to be the most creative space and menu.” The atmosphere is meant to be casual and fun, but the food is fine-dining quality.