If you've driven through downtown in the last couple of months, you've probably noticed a game of fruit-basket turnover being played out in the 800 block of Market Street.
The first business to find a seat was Fork & Pie, an all-pastry eatery and bar at 811 Market St. When it opened June 8, the Fork was a shiny new bauble in a part of downtown that has for years been a veritable desert after 5 p.m.
Pies were not the end of the story, though, just the opening note of a movement by River City Co. that hopefully will revitalize midtown in the coming months.
Today, Market Street Tavern will host a grand reopening after moving to a 2,800-square-foot space at 809 Market St. Owner Aaron Long said he decided to leave 850 Market St. two months ago to take advantage of a less-divided space that also satisfied the city's new requirement for clubs to have sprinkler systems.
"To us, a tavern is about the community and the fellowship amongst the patrons and everyone in the space," Long said. In the old location, "the customers had a sense of disconnect with everyone who was in there."
The Tavern now will feature a menu of dishes made with local ingredients and a more open layout that feels more neighborly. The venue also will host fewer large bands in favor of quieter acts that won't force patrons to yell over the music.
Oyé, a Cuban restaurant, will soon add an island flair to the block when it opens its doors at 807 Market St., the former home of the troubled Fire & Ice club. In the Tavern's old stomping grounds across the street, the owners of Urban Stack and Taco Mamacita will be opening a pizza restaurant called Community Pie.
Why is this influx of eateries and venues important?
Anyone who has lived or played downtown knows that, for all intents and purposes, there are two lively districts there: the waterfront and the Southside. In between, there's a whole lot of nothing.
This void gave tourists and revelers little incentive to leave the five blocks near the riverfront. Even with free meters on weekends, that made parking problematic and led to overcrowding in some bars.
It also meant choosing what end of Market Street to stay on since few people are willing to walk eight blocks through an urban desert to continue a pub crawl. Even worse, they might decide to drive to the next bar after having a couple of rounds.
Building a kind of entertainment oasis on the 800 block will give guests at nearby hotels a reason to leave their rooms and should give "going downtown" a broader definition than just visiting the riverfront.
Don't get me wrong. I love the waterfront, but eventually I'd love to see people enjoying the entire 15-block stretch from the bridges to Main Street - or even across the river from North Shore. These new venues are the key to that.
It's about time the city center lived up to its name, even after the sun goes down.