PORTAGE PARK — Food may not only be a way to win someone's heart, but also a path to economic revitalization for the Six Corners Shopping District.
With five restaurants opening their doors near Irving Park Road and Milwaukee and Cicero avenues in recent months, a yearslong effort to breathe new life into what was once the city's premier shopping destination outside the Loop is finally showing results that may herald a new era for Six Corners as the downtown of the Northwest Side.
Two more restaurants are scheduled to open in the coming months, including Community, a new gastro pub from the owner of The Portage Restaurant, and Taurus, which promises brick-oven pizza.
Heather Cherone discusses Community's opening:
"It is not too early to say that it is turning around," said Marc Sussman, owner of the renovated 81-year-old Klee Plaza building at the heart of Six Corners. "The strategy is bearing fruit. And there's more to come."
The Klee building is also home to Chicago's newest Jimmy John's at 4015 N. Milwaukee Ave., one of two national chains to open new locations at Six Corners this fall. Chipotle Mexican Grill opened in September in a new building that replaced a long-vacant clothing store and a bank.
Six Corners Bistro, 3930 N. Cicero Ave.., opened its doors for dinner in October, and plans to expand to breakfast and lunch in the coming weeks, said owner Reis Mehmedi.
"I remember when this area was hopping in the 1970s," Mehmedi said. "We took a chance. It has got great potential."
Shilas Restaurant, which offers family-friendly dining and breakfasts, is just two doors down from the bistro at 3938 N. Cicero Ave. and is frequently packed on the weekends.
Kenji Kerins, a photographer who opened a studio near Six Corners a year ago, said Shilas and the other new restaurants have begun to be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood.
"I'm not sure that it shows on the street yet, but it is building a sense of community," Kerins said, adding that it has helped his business to have a place to take clients out for a meal.
Josi's Frozen Yogurt Cafe, 4032 N. Milwaukee Ave., opened in May and quickly became a hangout for neighborhood moms looking for a sweet treat for their kids.
The restaurants have no doubt been boosted by crowds drawn to shows at the Portage Theater, which reopened in May and has been operating without issues. The theater hosted a packed show by Mexican rock band Café Tacuba in October.
Since he was elected in 2011, Ald. John Arena (45th) has worked to turn the Six Corners shopping district into an arts and culture mecca that would draw people from all over the city and restore the vitality the district lost in the late 1980s with the rise of suburban shopping malls.
"We've made great progress," said Arena, who is up for re-election in February. "We've spent a lot of hours on this, and we still have a lot of work."
Arena deserves the lion's share of the credit for the new life in the business district, Sussman said.
"I can't say enough about what he's done," Sussman said, also praising 45th Ward arts liasion Cyd Smillie for working on the other half of the equation and drawing a half-dozen new arts organizations to Six Corners. "That's a very important piece of the puzzle."
Attracting new restaurants is key to that strategy, as outlined in a 2012 master plan approved by the city. It found the area must become more dense and pedestrian-friendly as part of the effort to draw people from all over the city with the promise of dinner and a show.
"There's no magic wand," Arena said. "But we've created a buzz, and we're working toward a clustering effect where one thing attracts the next thing."
According to an assessment done as part of the master plan, Northwest Side residents spend $64.5 million at eateries outside the area. That situation creates an opportunity for new shops and restaurants to claim that business, according to the report.
"A combination of casual, limited-service establishments oriented to families and teens, as well as full-service restaurants and bars would add to the vibrancy of the Six Corners," according to the report.
In all, 18 new businesses have opened at Six Corners in 2014, including PetSmart, which opened in October in a remodeled storefront at 4640 W. Irving Park Road that was once home to a Blockbuster Video store that closed in 2012.
Two big projects under consideration have the potential to change Six Corners significantly, Arena said.
Plans call for a long-vacant bank building at 4901 W. Irving Park Road to be turned into a grocery store and gym, while saving a historic theater and boosting local arts organizations.
In addition, the huge Bank of America branch at the heart of the Six Corners Shopping District has been sold and will be torn down to make way for shops and stores, officials said.
That development, which has asked city officials for public funds, must serve as an anchor that draws people into the shopping district and send them through the community, Arena said.
The effort to attract businesses to Six Corners is getting easier, as new businesses start to thrive, said Ed Bannon, the executive director of the Six Corners Association.
"I don't have to convince people to come to Six Corners anymore," Bannon said. "It is no longer the frontier."
Instead, Bannon said he spends most of his time looking to find the "right space and the right fit" for businesses and restaurants.
"We're on the map," Bannon said. "We're on everyone's short list, and that wasn't always the case."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: