March 27, 1999
Toney Curtis encourages guests at his Whistling Bird restaurant to try one of the Jamaican specialty items on the menu in March 1999. Photos by Josh Meltzer / News Tribune
Thursday’s News Tribune included a "Stuff We Like" column by reporter Christa Lawler on the Whistling Bird restaurant in Gilbert.
On Thursday evening, I decided to look in the archives to see what was in the paper 10 years ago – and by coincidence stumbled upon an article from soon after the Whistling Bird opened, reporting on the phenomenon that the Jamaican restaurant had quickly become.
Here is that article from exactly 10 years ago – March 27, 1999:
HOW GILBERT GOT ITS GROOVE
AGAINST ALL ODDS, A NEON HOTSPOT CALLED THE WHISTLING BIRD IS COOKIN’ JAMAICAN GOURMET FOR AN APPRECIATIVE IRON RANGE CROWD
William Morrissey knows fine dining. His firm, Morrissey Hospitality Cos. Inc., manages two of the Twin Cities’ highest-rated restaurants – the St. Paul Cafe and Pazza Luna, where few diners get in without a reservation.
But he wasn’t prepared for what he found while passing through the Iron Range town of Gilbert on his way to a ground-breaking at Giants Ridge Ski Resort.
There, across the street from Big Al’s bar, a nondescript funeral home and Jim’s Bait, Morrissey found an island of neon in the heart of pasty and sarma country, population 2,800.
"This restaurant would be unexpected in the Twin Cities, much less Gilbert," Morrissey said, recalling his visit to the Whistling Bird, a spicy Jamaican restaurant lighting up Gilbert’s main street with its neon storefront. "It’s just fun. It’s what dining should be."
The barely 5-month-old restaurant is owned by Iron Range chef JoPat Curtis and her husband, Toney Curtis, who is Jamaican.
Pedestrians pass by the Whistling Bird Cafe in Gilbert in March 1999.
Given the high mortality rate of independent restaurants, other business owners told the couple they’d be crazy to open such an improbable restaurant in Gilbert – not generally known as a hub for culinary adventure.
But to the surprise of many, the restaurant has made Gilbert a destination among the local and not-so-local cognoscenti. The place is booked every Saturday night through April 10. Even weekdays often require a reservation, as Morrissey found out one Tuesday in March. He had to settle for a seat in the bar.
"It’s just the most talked about thing in the area," said Linda Roketa, marketing director at Giants Ridge. "You have to call for reservations weeks in advance, and that’s not normal for around here."
The restaurant’s guest book reads like a geography lesson. Customers have come from Texas, Canada, Florida, Wisconsin, Minneapolis – even Hamburg, Germany. Gas stations and other businesses on Broadway street have enjoyed the benefits.
"It’s drawing people into their community for other things, too. It’s almost part of economic development through food," Roketa said.
All this, JoPat Curtis notes, without placing a single advertisement.
"It’s almost embarrassing," she says. "We’re full every night."
JoPat Curtis puts the finishing touches on coconut shrimp in March 1999 at the Whistling Bird Cafe in Gilbert, the restaurant she owns with her husband, Toney.
Curtis’ cooking career spans more than 20 years. She has worked the country clubs, hotels and resorts that are sprinkled across the Iron Range.
Working country clubs meant she had winters off and plenty of time to travel. It was during a vacation in Jamaica that she met Toney, who was a waiter at one of her favorite Caribbean restaurants. They married in 1991.
"He’s probably one of the only black people living in this town for sure, but he’s been very well-received and there haven’t been any problems," Curtis said.
The two often thought about opening their own restaurant, but couldn’t afford it. They got a break one Christmas when JoPat’s brother – who sold a successful Twin Cities brokerage firm – offered to put up the money.
The Whistling Bird is named after a guest house in Jamaica. The menu consists of pastas, steaks and seafood items that Curtis has built her reputation on. But it’s perhaps most notable for four Jamaican entrees – all based on recipes Toney Curtis brought from home.
The two pride themselves on their authentic jerk sauce, a concoction of minced onions, allspice (pimento), fresh thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg and, of course, Scotch bonnet peppers, which provide the kick. The spices and jerk paste are brought over from Jamaica by friends and relatives.
"Toney’s father actually has a small plantation of pimento trees (in Jamaica)," JoPat said."We have lots of people making trips for us (for spices)."
Though the flavors are alien to many locals, the restaurant has become more than just a curiosity.
"Just about everybody I know from Hibbing has been here," said Greg Ban of Hibbing. "They can’t wait to get back."
Lake Vermilion resident Doug Meaden agrees.
"It’s a very plain-Jane, steak and baked potato type of town – fish fries on Friday nights – you know, the traditional stuff. So this is really a breath of fresh air," he said.