As chef Leonard Anderson and his partners hunted for a home for a new restaurant three years ago, they had a major motivation to land on St. Paul's Payne Avenue.

"We could afford it," Anderson said of the historic building that eventually became critics' darling Tongue in Cheek.

The rent was low for a reason. The commercial district, once the thriving heart of the city's East Side, has long suffered under a gritty reputation. But perhaps those days are finally drawing to a close, and not just on Payne. Downtown Robbinsdale, the former Schmidt Brewery complex on St. Paul's W. 7th Street and other Twin Cities gathering places are being resuscitated by food-focused businesses, a phenomenon drawing people, energy and investment to scruffy, long-dormant areas.

"The right restaurant, arriving at the right time, can have a tremendous impact on the redevelopment of a neighborhood," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. "It used to be that urban planning required a long, drawn-out process of meetings and research. Now, you just need a locally owned and operated restaurant with more than six local beers on tap."

Restaurants as catalysts for both urban and suburban revitalization is a national trend linked, in part, to the internet. As retail migrates online, the square footage that once housed stores empties out, and restaurants are filling the void. Dining out does not transfer to a URL.

"The U.S. is over-retailed in general, but that doesn't apply to food," said Rachel MacCleery, senior vice president at the Urban Land Institute, a research and education nonprofit in Washington, D.C. "People still have to eat three times a day, and that creates real opportunities for food-related businesses."

It just takes one

Sometimes, a single restaurant can act as a tipping point.

Modest downtown Robbinsdale traditionally featured some food-related activity on its main street, Broadway Avenue, said Rick Pearson, the city's community development coordinator. Hackenmueller's Meat Market, for example, has roots that extend into the late 19th century.

But the northwest suburb has witnessed nothing like Travail Kitchen & Amusements.

A four-star operation with a national profile and a fervent following, the restaurant began seven years ago in a small storefront before building a new, custom-tailored home just down the block in 2014.

The city worked with Travail co-owners Mike Brown, James Winberg and Bob Gerken, helping them acquire a tax-forfeited site and creating a tax increment financing district to help cover some demolition and improvement costs.

The payoff has been considerable. The restaurant's success has ignited more activity in the surrounding commercial district. Another major city-owned property, a former bank, is now a popular brewery and taproom, the Wicked Wort Brewing Co.

The Robbinsdale City Council remains proactive.

"It has gone so far as to amend the codes in hopes that we might get a microdistillery," said Pearson. "There's no question that Travail has generated a lot of interest in Robbinsdale. They've brought people here who might not otherwise have ever come."

That's no exaggeration. Travail hosts an annual summer party on the shores of nearby Crystal Lake; this year's, held on July 4, drew nearly 4,000 attendees.

The Travail ownership team also operates its popular pizzeria, Pig Ate My Pizza, in the original Travail storefront.

And they've purchased another city-owned building that's currently home to Performance Meals, a meal service program aimed at athletes and operated by former Travail chef Adrian De Los Rios.

"We have plans for that building," said Brown. "They're just not public, yet. But it's going to be nice, and exciting, and you'll hear about it next spring."

David Frank, economic development director for the city of Minneapolis, doesn't view restaurants as the canaries in the urban-renewal coal mine. Still, he believes that there are projects where dining-related activity is viewed as the people-magnet centerpiece.

"It used to be that Sears, or J.C. Penney was considered the anchor," said Frank. "Now, it's food, and experiences. That's what people show up for. Once developers and commercial brokers can demonstrate footsteps — that's the measurement being used today — of people walking past storefronts to get to, say, food halls, that's when retailers and other tenants want to be there, too."

Projects to watch

A prime example is developer 601W's remake of the mammoth former Dayton's department store in downtown Minneapolis.

"What we're hearing is that they're working hard for a large, large food hall component in the basement and the first two floors of the building, with offices above," said Frank.

Another project to watch is on St. Paul's W. 7th Street. After sitting fallow for years, the massive Schmidt Brewery complex has been slowly but surely coming back to life, with housing and, of course, a strong food component.

A $12 million commercial aquaponics facility is supplying local restaurants and supermarkets with salmon, arctic char and organic greens.

For diners, the brewery's former keg house is being converted into a food-centric operation featuring a new restaurant concept from the owners of Corner Table and Revival, as well as a St. Paul branch of Minneapolis' popular Hola Arepa.

The building will also feature a large food hall with dozens of rented stalls, an innovative concept that's being mirrored across the country.

"These kinds of next-generation food markets are places where someone, with relatively little investment, can go in, rent a stall and try out different products, perhaps spinning that off into a more traditional endeavor," said MacCleery.

Payne Avenue's commercial area was long defined by its most infamous tenant, the Payne Reliever, even though the strip club closed nearly 20 years ago. But no longer. Today, it's the critical mass of restaurants and food-related enterprises that make an impression on the mile-long stretch between Maryland Avenue and Phalen Blvd.

The list includes everything from pioneering gastropub Ward 6 to hipster haunt Caydence Records and Coffee to neighborhood tavern Brunson's Pub.

"Ward 6 and Tongue in Cheek have rebranded Payne as a cool neighborhood," said Coleman. "They've made it a place where you want to open a business, and a place where you want to live."

Bringing new energy

Another measure of Payne's transformation is the impending arrival of Cookie Cart, a nonprofit that trains teenagers in job skills by baking and selling cookies.

"We've been in Minneapolis for 30 years, so it's a huge jump for us to open a second site," said Executive Director Matt Halley He had his eye on the former Payne Reliever, but it's now occupied by a senior center. "That would have been such symmetry, but someone beat us to it," he said.

Payne is a long way from achieving 50th-and-France-like status, but the investment made by restaurateurs — and the subsequent influx of diners — has brought a new energy to the long-blighted thoroughfare.

"In the beginning, people said we were borderline delusional," said Tongue in Cheek's Anderson. "But it's worked out. We're benefiting from what's a kind of rebirth of neighborhood restaurants. Instead of driving downtown, people are sticking closer to home and giving back to their communities."

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757