The owners of Old Crow Smokehouse have reopened their prominent River North restaurant space swapping barbecue for pizza. Tree House, a colorful bar and restaurant with a nature theme and pizzas out of a wood-burning brick oven, is operated by sisters Samantha and Korina Sanchez, daughters of prolific hospitality owner Sam Sanchez (Old Crow, Moe’s Cantina), the board chair of the Illinois Restaurant Association.
Tree House aims to ride the line between family-friendly restaurant and trendy nightclub — a balancing act that’s in keeping with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team hopes to cultivate a laid-back atmosphere that feels like a party in the woods, replacing rows of whiskey barrels and distressed wood with a disco ball, two 140-inch screens, and a plethora of green plants lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling.
The Sanchez sisters also want to draw a dinner crowd — one that could be swayed to stay for drinks after wrapping up their meal. The family has brought over chef Marco Colin to serve as executive chef while also remaining at the helm of La Luna, Samantha Sanchez’s Pilsen restaurant. He’s featuring a menu of Italian-American classics like rigatoni with vodka sauce (crispy prosciutto, parmigiano reggiano) along with Neapolitan and Detroit-style pizzas, including a creative and timely birria variety with slow-braised beef, consommé, onion, and cilantro.
There’s room to seat 100 between two dining rooms at high- and low-top tables and booths for six, along with a DJ booth planted along the east wall of the restaurant. Owners hope to soon offer outdoor dining as well, as they’re in the process of locking down licenses for an outdoor patio that will seat 32. Patrons can also count on a 60-foot bar in front and another 25-foot bar in back.
Any clubby endeavor calls for cocktails, as the Sanchez’s well know. They’ve opened with options like a familiar Aperol spritz and a herbaceous Melon Me (Casamigos, canataloupe, yerba mate). Though many people call her to ask if they can bust a move at Tree House, Samantha Sanchez says that there’s no dancing — yet. When the pandemic ends and it’s safe for large groups to gather, however, she hopes to see people hit the floor and explore the space.
For the sisters, Tree House represents a fresh start from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chicago’s restaurant industry continues to struggle under economic challenges brought on by the virus, leading to sweeping closures across the city.
“We grew up in the restaurant industry from as far back as we can remember, so the past year has been really hard on us,” says Korina Sanchez. “Closing Old Crow in the space was sad, but it makes sense. We’re excited to make something nostalgic and fun that brings people together in a safe way after a really hard year for everybody.”
Tree House, 149 W. Kinzie Avenue, Open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.