The street that good food built

Business owners and neighborhood advocates created a dining destination, and transformed a street

WHITTIER — It’s been 12 years since a mile-long stretch of Nicollet Avenue was dubbed Eat Street, but the work of creating a multicultural dining destination began years before then.

In the mid-1980s, today’s Eat Street — Nicollet Avenue between Grant and 29th streets — was a much different place. A bustling commercial corridor just a decade earlier, Nicollet Avenue by then was “dark and hard and in decline,” said Tom Barthiaume, a former Whittier Alliance Board of Directors member.

“It was terrible,” Berthiaume recalled. “There were lots of boarded businesses. There were virtually no streetlights. There were virtually no trees.”

Local business owners placed much of the blame on the Kmart constructed right in the middle of the avenue in the late ’70s, severing the transportation artery. The darkened, dead-end street became a haven for drug dealing and prostitution.

Joanne Christ, co-owner of the Black Forest Inn, was among a group of Nicollet Avenue business owners who were determined to turn things around. One of them went out and took photographs up and down Nicollet Avenue, so they could get a good, clear look at the situation.

“We saw a fair number of vacancies,” Christ recalled. “But also … there were a fair number of new, interesting businesses — mostly run by immigrants and mostly restaurants and grocery stores.”

As Nicollet Avenue declined, so did property values in the area. It created an opening for ambitious new arrivals, mostly immigrants from Asia, but also Latin America.

At that time, a couple of Asian markets and a noodle shop were enough to draw immigrant families from miles around, even neighboring states, said Tammy Wong, whose family eventually purchased the noodle shop and opened Rainbow Chinese in 1987.

“You’re just working hard and you wanted to make it, and you can’t really afford to have a prime location,” Wong said.

Rainbow Chinese was less than two years old when that hard work paid off in the form of a glowing review from Jeremy Iggers, then the Star Tribune’s restaurant critic. Not yet Eat Street, Nicollet Avenue then was beginning to develop its reputation for tasty, affordable ethnic food.

But the neglected avenue still needed a facelift.

“We knew we had some real strong assets in the immigrant businesses, in the food outlets,” Berthiaume said. “But they needed support, and we needed more business.”

It took years of planning and a coordinated effort between three neighborhoods — Whittier, Stevens Square and Loring Park — but a $7 million streetscape improvement project finally began in 1996, Berthiaume said.

Nicollet Avenue re-opened with new pavement, wider sidewalks, decorative lighting, benches and trees in 1997. As the project drew to a close, business owners sought help from a local marketing firm in promoting the revitalized avenue, Christ said.

Who, exactly, came up with the term “Eat Street” isn’t clear a dozen years later, but Christ and Berthiaume credited Iggers, who may have coined the term in a review. Iggers didn’t recall, suggesting a copy editor may have written “Eat Street” in a headline.

In any case, the marketers seized on the phrase, and those 12 blocks of Nicollet have been Eat Street ever since.

Chef and restaurateur Raghavan Iyer, a former Whittier Alliance board member, said the Eat Street campaign really just put a name on years of effort by Nicollet Avenue restaurant owners. Iyer credited especially the immigrant business owners who “came in when things were not so pretty.”

“I think it had a big impact (on Minneapolis),” he said. 
“… It opened up the world and the flavors of the world on one street.”