Downtown Wauconda's new look a hit
When Bliss Wine & Gifts opened in a Wauconda storefront in 2009, Maria Weisbruch remembers looking out its windows onto Main Street with a sensation her new tasting menu might describe as a spicy blend of excitement with hints of dread.
Friends had cautioned Weisbruch: The stereotype of a "richy, highfalutin" wine bar might not fit well in small-town Wauconda. But Weisbruch, who has lived in the village since she was 11 years old, felt Main Street was ripe for a revival.
Today, the Main Street outside Bliss' often-crowded windows is bustling like rarely before. Part of the attraction is a host of new restaurants in the past two years that have added a culinary diversity, enticing out-of-towners and luring residents back to Main Street.
Stroll two blocks and you'll find diners sipping French martinis over fondue at Strawberry Moon, devouring any of three dozen burgers on the menu board at the retro-1950s Bulldogs Grill, washing down pork belly bruschetta with one of 60 craft beers at Middleton's on Main, and eating coal-fired pizza on Slyce's sunlit patio.
"It's really becoming a destination," Weisbruch said recently from behind the bar. "You could really come here and spend a weekend."
As it happened, four ladies seated near a wall of racked wine were doing just that.
"It was here or Lake Geneva," Ginny Callahan said while sipping a La Garrigue, a French red blend ($8 a glass), with friends from Wauconda and Northbrook.
Callahan, of Mesa, Ariz., recalled last visiting when the Wauconda Apple Orchard and Phil's Beach were about the town's only draws.
"I wanted to see the new Wauconda," she said.
Gone are mainstays like Main Street Cafe and Tom's Tap-A-Barrel, a gritty saloon that often served its first customers around sunrise. Village Inn and Murphy's Pub are the last barroom holdovers.
The newest addition is Middleton's on Main, described by the owners as an Irish gastro pub, which opened the first week of June in the historic Lakeside Inn building.
At the dinner hour recently, the barroom was crowded to standing room only and the atmosphere was loud and lively.
A musician hammered out Irish sing-a-longs on his acoustic guitar, while the filled dining room concentrated on plates of fried fish and roasted prime rib.
Jeff Middleton, 46, said Main Street's growth persuaded him to leave his construction career in the flagging residential real estate market and pursue the venture.
"The businesses here are not closing," Middleton said in an interview on the restaurant's front porch, where rows of French doors are cast open to the street. "I asked myself, what's missing here? The centerpiece of Main Street is closed."
Middleton bought the 1847 building in April for $322,500 -- it last sold for $875,000 in 2009, according to the village assessor's office -- and partnered with his brother, Brian, and the owners of Bulldogs Grill, Aaron Aggarwal and Joe Kafka, to run the restaurant.
The partnership was the latest example of a growing synergy between Main Street businesses.
For example, Bliss designed and supplies the wine list at Middleton's on Main. Waiters at Bulldogs Grill and Frank's Karma Cafe -- a lunch spot popular for its sandwiches and fresh-baked pies -- routinely run food orders to customers at Bliss. One of the partners behind Slyce Coal Fired Pizza Company, which opened in 2010, is Brittany Barth of Lindy's Landing, a lakeside restaurant across the street.
"It's almost contagious," said Sandy Hartogh, executive director of Wauconda's chamber of commerce, who added a few business owners in a nearby town have called in search of pointers.
Hartogh was hard-pressed to sum up what prompted the sudden success downtown, but she pointed to Bliss' proactive business model -- emphasizing philanthropy and community involvement, while broadening its appeal through beer tastings, live music and Sunday brunch -- as inspirational to other businesses.
"People saw how successful one merchant could be with the proper marketing and promotion, and others have come in and followed suit," she said.
Mayor Mark Knigge said Main Street's "big turnaround" has created a pressing problem for village hall to solve: a downtown parking shortage. As problems go, increasing traffic is a welcome one; Knigge said the village is exploring more than one location for additional public parking.
"The word about Wauconda has finally gotten out," he said. "It's a vibrant, growing community that's willing to work with businesses."
Camaraderie and community spirit among business owners and residents have helped the downtown thrive, said Knigge, who pointed to volunteer fundraising that helps line Main Street with hanging flower baskets in summer and pine wreaths in winter and paid for a bicycle rack for cyclists.
In the latest effort, Wauconda businesses teamed up to buy 15 Adirondack chairs and commissioned local artists to decorate and put them on sidewalk display for summer.
The owners of Aspire Boutique, a women's clothing store that opened last September, spearheaded the project in hopes of promoting Main Street. Proceeds from an auction in September will be put toward downtown enhancements.
Meanwhile, the village has set aside up to $24,500 and hired a Chicago marketing agency to promote Wauconda as a destination for entrepreneurs and out-of-town visitors.
Will Tremont, a Main Street barber for 32 years, has watched a parade of storefront signs go up and come down through the years. These days, more and more customers comment from the barber chair about Main Street's revived energy.
Tremont points to Bliss's policy of donating all tips to local charities and the neighborly, know-your-name service at Honey Hill Coffee Company as examples of the small-town quaintness people seem to appreciate.
"I think Wauconda's demographics have changed and allowed these kinds of businesses to flourish," Tremont said.