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Whistling Bird to reopen with new owner

The restaurant that brought a taste of Jamaica to the Iron Range town of Gilbert for 11 years is returning. Closed since November 2009, the Whistling Bird will reopen this summer, new owner Jessica Antonovich of Gilbert said Friday. She plans a J...

Whistling Bird
The Whistling Bird Cafe in Gilbert has a new owner, who hopes to reopen the restaurant in July. (File / News Tribune)

The restaurant that brought a taste of Jamaica to the Iron Range town of Gilbert for 11 years is returning.

Closed since November 2009, the Whistling Bird will reopen this summer, new owner Jessica Antonovich of Gilbert said Friday. She plans a July 3 opening and has hired a steel drum band for what she's calling a 3rd of July Celebration.

"It's coming together beautifully," said Antonovich, 27, who is three courses away from her bachelor's degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "It's going to be gorgeous."

The original restaurant opened in downtown Gilbert in late 1998 under the ownership of Toney Curtis, a Jamaican native, and his wife, JoPat Curtis. It quickly became a destination dining place, drawing foodies from the Twin Ports, the Twin Cities and beyond who had a taste for coconut shrimp, mahi mahi and spicy jerk sauce.

Charlize Theron and other cast members dined there when "North Country" was filmed on the Iron Range in 2005.

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When it closed, the owners cited the economic downturn as the primary reason. Also, JoPat Curtis was struggling with Wegener's disease, a disease of the kidneys. She died on Aug. 17, 2010.

More recently, Toney Curtis has had legal troubles. He was charged in September with two counts of criminal sexual conduct. Those charges were dropped as the result of a plea agreement, and last week Curtis pleaded guilty to one felony count of third-degree criminal conduct.

Toney Curtis has no affiliation with the new Whistling Bird, Antonovich said.

Antonovich declined to discuss details of the purchase except to say it happened about two months ago and she didn't buy the restaurant from Curtis. She is sole owner, she said, but she has "a great support network." That includes her mother, Laurice Antonovich, who had been a host manager at the restaurant and a close friend of JoPat Curtis; and family friend Marianne Kishel, who also had been JoPat Curtis' close friend.

Moreover, Antonovich has brought back the Whistling Bird's kitchen manager, Patrick Berg, to serve as executive chef.

Berg, 27 and a St. Cloud native, has worked at restaurants since he was 14, he said, most recently in the Twin Cities. But his time at the Whistling Bird in 2006, 2007 and part of 2008 was central to his development.

"JoPat, I would say, is my biggest influence to my career to this date," Berg said. "And it's not close. She was a very important mentor to me and a good friend as well."

After weeks of renovations that were mostly cosmetic, Antonovich said, she and Berg are working to plan the restaurant's menu. Much of it will be familiar to former patrons, but the new Whistling Bird will be Caribbean-themed instead of focusing only on Jamaica.

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Berg said customers can expect Spanish, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican specialties.

"It needs to be brought into the new age a little bit," Berg said. "It's going to be modernized."

The restaurant already is creating buzz. Antonovich started a Whistling Bird page on Facebook at 8 p.m. on Thursday; it had more than 800 "likes" by 9 p.m. Friday.

In five hours, the question: "What was your favorite dish from the Whistling Bird" drew 78 comments.

Black and bleu steak, a drink called "The Pickled Parrot" and anything starting with the word "jerk" were getting a lot of early votes.

Related Topics: FOODIRON RANGE
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