Eat Street — that’s the enclave of restaurants on Nicollet Avenue just south of downtown Minneapolis — will officially mark its 20th anniversary next year.

But its roots reach much deeper.

Beginning in the late 1980s, when the highly recognizable Eat Street brand name was just a twinkle in some marketer’s eye, the neighborhood was slowly, organically developing into a United Nations-like collection of mom-and-pop restaurants and food-related markets. Most had gravitated to shopworn Nicollet for its affordable rents and convenient-to-downtown topography.

After some tough years, the neighborhood was coming back to life, and food, that galvanizing urban renewal force, was one of the grass-roots drivers behind the renaissance.

By the early 1990s, a tangle of activists from the Loring Park, Stevens Square and Whittier communities — as well as a congress of business owners, many of them restaurateurs — had banded together. Their goal was to spiff up the faded stretch of Nicollet between Grant and 29th streets by undertaking an ambitious streetscape reconstruction project.

How faded? Take a look at the crime statistics: “Police say the Nicollet Av. section of Whittier, which cuts through the heart of the neighborhood from Franklin Av. to 28th St., probably has the worst street prostitution problem in Minneapolis,” according to a 1991 Star Tribune article. “Of the 80 to 100 prostitution arrests in the city each month, police say, more than half are in Whittier.”

Yikes. It took more than five years of cutting through red tape on the city, county and state levels, but the $7.4 million (that’s just over $11 million in today’s dollars) road-and-sidewalk renovation was finally completed in 1997, leaving a pedestrian-friendly streetscape dotted with 250 antique-style streetlights and an equal number of trees.

Enter “Eat Street.” As construction was nearing completion, Star Tribune restaurant critic Jeremy Iggers penned a guide to Nicollet’s diverse critical mass of dining opportunities.

“Eats Street,” trumpeted the headline. Minneapolis ad agency GdB shorthanded it to “Eat Street,” and the rest is history.

Change has always been an Eat Street constant, and it’s hard to forget some of the players that have come and gone over the years: Seafood Palace, Cafe Phuong, the Royal Orchid, Azia, Tacos Morelos, Abdul’s Afandy, Java, the Little Apple, Chez Paul, Bali, Relax, Big E’s Soul Food, the Upper Crust and perhaps the avenue’s most-missed marquee, Sindbad Cafe and Market. Owner Sami Rasouli sold the restaurant and store in 2004 and returned to his native Iraq, to help in that nation’s rebuilding efforts.

Redefining a culinary thoroughfare

On the subject of change, Eat Street has undergone a startling transformation in recent years.

The neighborhood’s around-the-globe aura has been supplemented by an energizing influx of innovative culinarians of all stripes, who have only enlarged Nicollet’s deep dining-out diversity: doughnut makers who approach their craft with the razzmatazz of circus ringmasters, wine and beer enthusiasts eager to share their passion and knowledge, fried chicken fanatics, tasting menu purveyors, masterly mixologists, ramen zealots, coffee purists, brewing buffs, ambitious member-owned natural foods co-ops, heritage-flour-obsessed bakers. Get the picture?

Naturally, thrill-seeking diners (trailing their tell-all Yelp profiles) have followed, in droves.

It’s that happy, people-pleasing, neighborhood-transforming equation: Restaurants draw customers, which draw more restaurants, which draw more customers.

As a reflection of Eat Street’s growth and evolving nature, we’ve tweaked its traditional boundaries. They feel confining, and antiquated.

Eat Street, Original Recipe version, has always been the 1.2-mile segment between Grant and 29th streets — on the north, that’s where Nicollet Mall comes to an end, and on the south it’s the back wall of a Kmart store, a notorious 1970s relic that blocks Nicollet’s flow.

But this revised version of Eat Street extends the love to adjacent side streets and also embraces the white-hot stretch of restaurants — many rank among the city’s most forward-thinking establishments — that have emerged along the 24-block stretch of Nicollet that runs from Lake Street to Diamond Lake Road.

Think of it as Eat Street 2.0, or New Eat Street. That longer view is an unparalleled enclave of restaurants, coffeehouses, bakeries, bars and markets.

The numbers alone are impressive, a sum that far exceeds the Taste 50’s self-imposed numerical ceiling.

Include every food-related enterprise on these 37 blocks of Nicollet, and we easily could have christened this 11th-annual project the Taste 75. 

@RickNelsonStrib