The insider's guide
This story is sponsored by Wauwatosa Village.
What’s Happening Now
Check out what’s new and notable in the village
Looking for a place to soak up some holiday spirit while getting some shopping done or enjoying a meal? Tosa’s Village has what you’re looking for.
With a mix of urban amenities – restaurants featuring a variety of different cuisines, and shops with unique offerings you won’t find elsewhere – plus recently revitalized green space, the Village truly offers something for everyone.
“The Village is a thriving commercial district in the heart of Wauwatosa, complemented by parks, recreation facilities, events and cultural centers,” says Michelle Haider, Wauwatosa Village Business Improvement District’s executive director. “With many changes and new construction, the Village is a favorite destination for locals and visitors to shop, dine and play.” — Kristine Hansen
Harwood and Wauwatosa Avenues
Installed last summer, this park is hosting the Village’s annual tree-lighting ceremony on Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. Warm up with a free cup of hot cocoa and listen to music by a Tosa elementary school chorus while waiting for Santa to arrive.
Harwood and Wauwatosa Avenues
Between June and September, the park hosts monthly outdoor concerts as part of “The Root Series.” Benches, a large green space and a kids’ play area increase accessibility for all ages. The recently installed and dedicated World War I memorial honors Tosa vets.
7400 W. State St.
Residents of this 148-unit apartment building moved in starting in the summer of 2017, enticed by amenities like an outdoor courtyard (with communal grills), fitness club and Bublr station onsite. Units span one to three bedrooms each.
1501 Underwood Ave.
Dog owners love the pet-exercise area, and everyone adores home-like amenities such as a car-washing and grill station at this 30-unit apartment building that began leasing to residents over the summer. Floor plans range from one to three bedrooms.
Where to park
Don’t fret about where to leave your car. There are over 500 free parking spots in the Village, not including street parking. Among eight public parking lots with free parking is one across the railroad tracks where Wauwatosa Avenue meets State Street. Another, on the south side of the pedestrian bridge underneath Harmonee Avenue, has 142 spots. Street parking is free, with time limits of between two and three hours. Many businesses offer free parking, including the lot in front of Starbucks and next to The Ruby Tap on Wauwatosa Avenue.
Tosa’s Village retails everything from chocolate bars to cozy sweaters, and it’s a prime place to meet friends for coffee or lunch. Fitness fans can get their groove on via yoga or indoor cycling. Come nightfall, the energy doesn’t quit, thanks to date-night restaurants. Here’s where in-the-know retailers love to go.
Tabal Chocolate owner Dan Bieser recommends…
“Recently we were in Oro di Oliva tasting exotic olive oil from around the world and realized how lucky we were to have such food experts, and high-quality ingredients in Wauwatosa Village. They inspired us to develop a blood-orange olive-oil chocolate bar.”
A stocked pantry helps you entertain guests in style.
Keep a well-stocked bar, and be sure to stop by Ruby Tap or The Village Cheese Shop and pick up a couple bottles of red and white wine.
Some chocolate bars from Tabal Chocolate or a box of Turtles from Niemann’s Chocolate will satisfy any sweet tooth.
With the completion of an extensive redevelopment, there’s even more to love about Wauwatosa Village. — by B.L. Hogan
Wauwatosa’s Village area just underwent a thorough three-year makeover. But instead of making the place look shiny and new, the improvements accentuate the area’s historic charm.
At the Village’s center, the pavement has been replaced by pavers, and there are no curbs, creating the most pedestrian-friendly of urban spaces, though still open to vehicle traffic. Lights are strung above, lending a festive air to the proceedings. New trees have been planted.
The result: a complete rebirth of the city’s oldest commercial center, which after a project estimated to cost $29.5 million is now fully open for business, and, it could be argued, is the place to be in Milwaukee’s close-in western suburb.
The project was inspired by the need to replace a 1890s-era water main and old, under-capacity sewers, and to repave State Street and some other streets, but clearly the construction went beyond those merely utilitarian purposes.
“I’ve seen streetscaping now three times in my career here,” says Jim Niemann, owner of Niemann’s Candies and Ice Cream on Harwood Avenue – a business that’s been in his family for generations, and in the Village since the 1930s. “This latest one seemed to take the longest, but in its outcome I think it might be the best,” he says.
The area has served as a gathering place along the Menomonee River since the 1830s, when Charles Hart built a sawmill and later Milwaukee County’s first grist mill at a place where an old Indian trail forded the Menomonee River, giving the pioneer village the name Hart’s Mills – and giving local farmers a place to turn their wheat into flour.
Today, it is Wauwatosa’s historic downtown, with a bevy of dining and drinking establishments, and retail stores from Soaps & Scents to Niemann’s to The Little Read Book.
Chris Leffler, owner of Leff’s Lucky Town bar and restaurant at 72nd and State streets, has been the chairman of the Village’s Business Improvement District for the past decade or so, and he credits the BID, and a number of enterprising developers and business owners, with the Village’s recent revival. Leff’s recently celebrated its 24th anniversary, and Leffler sees a big change in the area over the time he’s been in the Village. “I don’t want to call it a sleepy town” back then, he says, “but it certainly has changed and evolved over the years. It was certainly sleepy relative to what it looks like now.”
Over its long history, the Village saw both sleepy and lively years. Hart’s Mills adopted the name Wauwatosa (Potawatomi for “firefly”) in the 1840s. The railroad came through in 1850, and by the 1890s, a settlement of frame buildings, including a general store (later, Lefeber’s Department Store) and an inn sat on the north bank of the Menomonee. But in 1895, a fire of suspicious origin swept through town, destroying 13 buildings, according to a pictorial history of Wauwatosa prepared by the city’s historical society. After the fire, brick and stone buildings replaced many of those that had been lost – and several of those are still standing at the Village center, including the Dittmar Building from 1897, now home of The Flower Lady, at Underwood and State; and the Hemsing Building from 1910, now home of Café Hollander. Probably the most notable of these post-fire buildings was a castle-like tavern first owned by the Pabst Brewery. That building, at Harwood Avenue and State Street, is now the home of Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993, an early centerpiece of the neighborhood’s recent revival, and it still features the Pabst logo on its tower.
Joe Bartolotta, who grew up just a few blocks away, tells the story of how he ended up on the corner of Harwood and State: He was walking by the former Harwood’s Restaurant and saw a for-rent sign, but he first had to convince the building’s owner, a lawyer who had his office on the second floor. The attorney “had no interest in renting to an Italian restaurant,” Bartolotta said. “He didn’t want the smell of garlic in his law offices.”
The restaurant owners and other merchants have developed the habit of working together for the neighborhood’s benefit, especially through the BID. In September, the organization sponsored a Tosa Village Harvest Festival, with a farmers market in the morning, culminating in a four-course dinner for 100 people at a long table in the middle of State Street, presented by Ristorante, Le Rêve and the Lowlands restaurants and sponsored by Outpost Natural Foods.
“Listen to a train passing, a fire truck, church bells, children’s giggles, music. Breathe in the aromas of coffee, restaurants, chocolate, flowers, soaps.”
— Karen Tibbitts,
OWNER OF SOAPS & SCENTS
As part of the redevelopment, several apartment and condo projects have been built in recent years (Harmonee Square at Underwood and Harmonee, and State Street Station at State and Wauwatosa), bringing a younger demographic to the Village.
“[Young people] don’t want a house and yard and all the fixings like we went after at that age,” says Linda Burg, owner of The Little Read Book. “They want to be in the thick of things, and they want to be able to walk places and have choices of really nice restaurants, and that’s what they’re getting, that’s what it’s turned into” in the Village. Plus, it means new store patrons: “After being in business 33 years, when someone says that this is their first time in, you go ‘Woo-hoo! Please come back.’”
Niemann is the third-generation owner of his candy store, which opened in Milwaukee in 1919. He’s been proprietor since 1986, and has worked there since he was about 7, making candy canes with his dad. And he’s happy, too, about the Village’s new demographics. The neighborhood, he says, is “bursting at the seams with new residents. That’s only good for business. We love to see that. You have pedestrians now more than ever,” he says, “people with their baby buggies and their dogs. It’s all good.”
Leffler, too, is enthusiastic about the future of the neighborhood. “It’s going to be safer, the parking will be better, we’ll have better signage for way-finding, to tell people where parking is, where stores are,” he says. “We have such great amenities, and it’s really a wonderful community.”
Karen Tibbitts, owner of Soaps & Scents, a little boutique on a prominent corner of the Village, is a recent occupant – she moved there just five years ago, after 29 years at Mayfair Mall – but she may be the most effusive, or at least the most lyrical.
“We take our position on the Harwood corner very seriously,” she says. “We are like a steward or an ambassador for the Village. I invite folks to stroll the Village. Discover the Root Common Park, listen to a train passing, a fire truck, church bells, children’s giggles, music. Breathe in the aromas of coffee, restaurants, chocolate, flowers, soaps. The lighting at dusk creates a warm ambiance, too. I’ve been told it’s very European, the Village.”