LINCOLN PARK — Armitage Avenue, often considered a barometer of the business environment in the neighborhood, is trying to find its identity.
Small-business owners all along the historic stretch of century-old architecture say the street is undergoing a transformation to capitalize on the emergence of food-based ventures.
In the last two years, restaurants and specialty food shops have begun filling storefronts left vacant by boutiques, and that trend is set to continue this spring.
"What I'm seeing a lot is that the street, by necessity, is transitioning," said Matt Bercovitz, who opened the first location of his specialty popcorn shop, Berco's Popcorn, at 810 W. Armitage Ave. in June of 2013. "What I hope it becomes is a foodie destination."
Berco's menu of white truffle and gold speckled popcorn would fit the "foodie" bill, but will the other restaurant concepts do the same to draw traffic to the street?
The historic Armitage-Halsted District stretching from Racine Avenue to Halsted Street on Armitage, and between Armitage and Webster Avenue on Halsted, has mostly been known for high-end fashion boutiques and designers for years.
In February, Chicago real estate investor Fred Latsko opened a farm-to-table restaurant, Blue Door Farm Stand, in what was once Mosaic, an apparel and jewelry shop, and later Sage Chicago, an accessory and jewelry boutique.
The farmhouse-style restaurant and its built-in retail shop with artisanal goods and handcrafted items has been a hit in the neighborhood.
Following the retail-to-restaurant trend, farther west down the block at 1000 W. Armitage Ave., crews are working to turn the former Ralph Lauren Rugby store into a Le Pain Quotidien restaurant.
The New York-based chain, founded in Belgium, chose the location as one of the first three in the city for its entrance to Chicago.
"We've always had an eye on Chicago and it's a big foodie capital and we really wanted to reach those customers," said Margaret Reinig, a spokeswoman for Le Pain Quotidien.
The restaurant is moving into a prime location at Sheffield and Armitage avenues and filling a spot that's been vacant for more than a year.
Le Pain Quotidien's menu consists of freshly baked organic breads, vegan soups, pastries, Charcuterie and cheese plates, French sandwiches and salads.
The company plans to open the Lincoln Park restaurant at the end of April or early May. The other two locations are set to open in the Gold Coast and in the French Market in the West Loop in the spring.
A Freshii fast-casual restaurant with a heavy focus on healthy eats is scheduled to open at 854 W. Armitage around April 1, in a space formerly occupied by Camelot Children's Kingdom, a clothing shop.
Across the street, at 819 W. Armitage, The Social Table is undergoing major renovations. The restaurant's built on a BYOB dinner party concept to help people learn basic cooking skills while meeting friends. The two-story building eventually will be able to host two kitchens of eight to 12 friends at a time.
Those businesses join Glazed and Infused doughnut shop, Sweet Buddha candy shop, David's Tea and Interurban Cafe and Pastry Shop, which all opened on a two-block stretch of Armitage Avenue in the last two years.
Longtime boutique owners such as Esther Fishman of Art Effect see the influx of food-based businesses on the block as a good thing.
Fishman's shop has been in business at 934 W. Armitage for 29 years.
"We are thrilled," she said. "We haven't had food on this street in so long."
The openings come admid a series of closings by big-brand retail shops such as the Nike Training Club, 833 W. Armitage Ave., which didn't last a year, and the United Colors of Benetton, which closed in late 2012.
Independent handbag designer 1154 Lill Studio is shutting down all of its locations in March, including the flagship shop at 904 W. Armitage Ave.
Still, many longtime retailers such as Art Effect, Lori's Shoes and McShane's Exchange, and national-brands such as BCBG and American Apparel remain.
The Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce sees the addition of so many restaurants on the block as "another leg" for the street to stand on, that could eventually drive traffic to the area from other neighborhoods and bring tourists, thanks to the proximity of the "L" stop.
"Whenever you talk about a neighborhood re-emerging or getting a buzz about it, it seems like food and drink is really the one industry that is driving things," said Padraic Swanton, director of communications and marketing for the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce.
Swanton and business owners like Bercovitz said the new business environment on Armitage will create a shopping and dining environment where people will want to stay and spend an afternoon.
"It changes the demo of who's walking by," Bercovitz said. "Now, I think a family of four can say let's go to Annette's [Italian Ice], let's go to Glazed and Infused, and let's go to Berco's because it's around the corner. It's ease of access."
An incoming Walgreens at 834 W. Armitage Ave. will also serve as an anchor on the block.
“From a marketing standpoint for an entire commercial district, this is a great thing," Swanton said. "It will create the kind of shopping and dining environment that makes people want to stay. If you can get people to come to one street, hit a couple of stores and hit a restaurant in between, that’s really a comprehensive experience.”