One of Chicago’s most revered restaurant spaces — the ex-North Avenue Bathhouse in Wicker Park that housed Trenchermen and Spring — won’t stay dormant for long. The former owner of bustling downtown riverside spot Bridge House Tavern has taken over and plans to open a neighborhood-friendly restaurant and bar, Angry Pig Tavern, within eight weeks after he was pushed out of the prime riverside location he ran for seven years.
Angry Pig Tavern, named for a statue of a “disgruntled” pig in a chef’s outfit he had on display at Bridge House that he also named a burger after, will be a “neighborhood polished tavern” that will serve casual entrees, sandwiches, appetizers, bar food, and brunch, owner Mark Hemmer says. Also expect lots of pork, whisky, craft beer, and some cocktails. Trench, the latest restaurant to occupy the space, has been closed for five months.
“It’ll be very similar to Bridge House where if you want to come in (the dining room) and get steak frites and a nice entrée and have dinner you can do that; if you want to sit at the bar and have a burger you can do that too,” Hemmer says. “(We’re going to) really cater to a wide spectrum of what people want to eat. Our food is a little more casual (than Trenchermen was) so we’re hoping to reach a few more people in the neighborhood.” Take a look at Bridge House’s menus for an idea of what Angry Pig will serve.
Expect the space to look similar to its predecessor, as Hemmer and team aren’t doing major construction. They’ll repaint some of the interior to “lighten up the space,” hang some new light fixtures, artwork, chalkboards, change the neon “Trench” sign outside and possibly add more, and maybe even open up the front windows in the summer. One noteworthy change is he’ll add some TVs above Trench’s formerly-popular 46-seat bar, saying “we’re not going to have game sound on — it won’t be a sports bar — you’ll be able to see a TV if you want to but it won’t be obnoxious.” Hemmer, a Kendall College grad who will be executive chef/owner has a chef de cuisine to run the kitchen. He expects to turn around the space quick and open in early April.
Hemmer said his lease at Bridge House Tavern (321 N. Clark Street) ended around a year-and-a-half after Larry Levy of Levy Restaurants bought its high-rise building with a ground-floor lobby. Bridge House’s basement riverside space features a massive patio — a space that had become a mob scene in the summer months, notably following the opening of the Chicago Riverwalk across the river — and another level in between. Hemmer says he was offered multiple leases with progressively shorter terms until eventually he signed one that had a clause giving the building owner the option to terminate it at any time because “our hands were behind our backs.” He made a proposal to the new building owner that included a new restaurant on the ground floor, but “they didn’t like our proposal and it sounds like they went with Lettuce Entertain You.”
On January 29, a post went up on Bridge House’s Facebook page that announced its closure and also announced that “the building owner (Larry Levy) decided to give our lease to his good friend Rich Melman, at Lettuce Entertain You.” A Lettuce Entertain You rep says she “doesn’t know anything about that,” and reps for Levy and the building management did not respond to requests for comment.
“I’ve heard (Lettuce Entertain You is) doing the (Bridge House) space, a huge event space, and the space in the lobby,” Hemmer says. “Ryan See (who runs The Kennison in Lincoln Park in partnership with the Boka Restaurant Group), who was a shareholder at Bridge House, is the one who put the post on Facebook.” See didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. “Bill and Giuliana Rancic walked through once or twice over the summer, so an RPM on the river type of deal is what I heard,” Hemmer continues. “We didn’t have a lot of big investors with deep pockets — we were a mom and pop shop — and you can only survive for so long I guess. I think they wanted someone who can operate all three spaces; three different concepts under the same umbrella.”
So now Hemmer and his team turn their attention to the Trenchermen space. Heisler Hospitality opened the Wicker Park icon in 2012 and shuttered it in September 2017, eight months after reconcepting into the more bar-focused Trench under chef Jared Wentworth. Hemmer says he had been looking for spaces in anticipation of Bridge House closing and was contacted about Trench by his real estate broker in November 2017.
“I’ve had a crush on this space since Trenchermen opened,” Hemmer says. “I got the phone call and talked to my broker and he went back to Matt (Eisler) and we had a price down in two hours. It’s a new chapter and we got a really good response from the vibe and food (at Bridge House) and if I we do that up here I think we’ll have the same positive feedback.” Look for Angry Pig Tavern to open at 2039 W. North Avenue in April.