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BelAir Cantina Owners Pick Up Good Vibrations on North Avenue

Plans going before Design Review Board as restaurant group prepares to get under way with transforming car dealership into a trendy Mexican place.

Many people look at the building on the southwest corner of West North Avenue and North 68th Street and see an outdated eyesore.

Owners of the Mojofuco Restaurants group saw it and thought it was "a super-cool old building."

The former Aqua Terra tropical fish store at 6817 W. North, before that a used-car dealership, has a '60s look with a low-slung, angular, glassy retail space jutting out to the sidewalk from a flat-topped, blocky garage in back.

Mojofuco's owners saw in that a lot of opportunities for bringing light and air into a modern Mexican restaurant setting with a comfortable, broken-in feel – "a great vibe," in the words of co-owner Scott Johnson.

Mojofuco will go before the Wauwatosa Commercial Design Review Board on Thursday evening with plans to give that old shoe a high polish as a second iteration of their successful BelAir Cantina on Water Street in Milwaukee.

Dozens of outdoor dining seats are part of the plan, and part of the garage roof will be raised to install clerestory lighting. Two garage doors, one in front and one in back, will remain and be raised during warm weather.

"The building has great bones," Johnson said. "We're just going to warm it up a bit. We're going to keep the industrial feel, but with lots of air and light."

Not their first garage transformation

Mojofuco has a history of turning spaces others either overlooked or just plain couldn't love into hip, funky cafes and nightspots. One of them, in fact – the Hi Hat Garage – was just what the name implies.

Mojofuco has closed the purchase on the new BelAir site and, with design and permitting approvals from the city, wants to get started on construction as soon as possible and make as much progress as they can before the possibility of winter-weather slowdowns.

They're aiming for an opening in April or May, Johnson said.

Maybe by Cinco de Mayo – though maybe not.

"That would be great if we could," Johnson said, "but I can't say that we will. We're in a rush, but we have to do it right."

Once upon a time cool, and soon cool again

According to one of Mojofuco's new district aldermen, it looks like they are doing it right already with a set of solid and exciting plans.

"It's very impressive, it's wonderful looking," said District 1 Ald. Jim Moldenhauer, who first got a look at the design Wednesday. "It's a trendy design. It makes tremendous use of the existing space."

Moldenhauer remembers that space from better days.

"When I was a kid, it was an international car dealership," he said. "I recall walking to Longfellow and looking at the cars."

Moldenhauer was particularly impressed with the amount and layout of outdoor seating.

"A lot of places that have outdoor dining have a very constrained feel," he said. "This is very expansive. This is going to be a real magnet. It could be a real anchor-type establishment."

Finding the North Avenue vibe

There is much to be done, though. Johnson said that the cost of buying and refurbishing the property will be "from $1.5 million to $1.8 million by the time we're done."

Mojofuco was approved for $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to help finance the project. The new business will create at least 26 jobs, the number employed at the original BelAir, Johnson said, and probably more because its considerably larger.

The Wauwatosa BelAir will have seating for about 250 with the outdoor area included. Johnson did not have final breakdown on the indoor/outdoor seating numbers.

Anyone who wants a preview need only visit the BelAir Cantina at 1935 N. Water St.

"The menu will be basically, almost exactly the same, maybe with a couple of additional offerings," Johnson said, "and it will have the same kind of vibe."

"That's where we're starting, anyway," he said. "Maybe it will develop its own vibe, where it is. There's a lot of great things going on in the area.

"We hope that we can make everybody happy."

Random Blog Commenter October 03, 2012 at 08:10 PM
Some folks wanted this building torn down. It is a very interesting buidling that should clean up really well -- it has good visual lines and big, flexible spaces (plus off-street parking). I do like the design and I wish the owners the best of luck. Don't let our tax dollar investment be for nothing.
Nancy Hall October 04, 2012 at 03:32 AM
Parking?
Jim Price October 04, 2012 at 05:31 AM
Large on-site parking. We don't have exact numbers or a diagram yet, but if you happen to drive by the property, there's a large parking area to the east of the building, right at the corner of 68th and North. Will it be adequate if BelAir is really popular? Maybe not. But who on North Ave. has adequate parking now? Anybody?
Tosamom October 04, 2012 at 11:36 AM
Isn't the city putting more parking at 69th and North? I seem to remember reading that. More parking can only help.
Bobby Pantuso October 04, 2012 at 12:17 PM
Tosamom, you are correct. Revamping the 69th street municipal lot is a component of the North Avenue plan http://wauwatosa.net/DocumentView.aspx?DID=783 that process is already underway and in design phase.
BuckT October 04, 2012 at 08:03 PM
I like the design aspect that allow people driving by to see patrons at the business. I think it will be a nice addition to the avenue while also improving the perceptioon of North ave. for those who usually just drive through.
BuckT October 04, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Regarding parking, do hope a creative solution/use of the available space is defined. That area of 68th is always backed up at the intersection during rush hours and getting in/out could be a challenge. Good luck with the entire project though.

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