Restaurateurs plan Niles eatery on Wildwood Tavern site with $1.6 million in TIF funds

The owners of Chicago restaurants Smoke Daddy, Frasca, Remington’s, the Perch Kitchen and Tap and others on the North Side are looking to open their first suburban location of Crosby’s Kitchen in Niles, according to the restaurant group. Plans call for the suburban eatery to be located on the site of Wildwood Tavern, which has closed permanently, its owner confirmed last week.

Derek Rettell, co-owner of the Four Star Restaurant Group, said he had been eyeing the Wildwood site at 6480 Touhy Avenue for the American grill concept restaurant Crosby’s Kitchen. Rettell is planning major renovations projected to cost $3.5 million. To facilitate the deal, the Niles Village Board at its Oct. 24 meeting approved a tax increment financing deal worth $1.6 million to help cover the costs.

The Niles Crosby’s Kitchen and its menu will be based on the original in Lakeview, said Rettell. The original eatery’s menu, which consists of salads, sandwiches, pork chops and ribs, will be bolstered with seafood. The Niles location will have a wood fire grill, which the Lakeview location does not have. Rettell said preparing fish over a wood fire grill is “simply phenomenal, and a flavor you can’t replicate on gas.”

The Niles location will also have private dining areas for corporate and personal events. “We don’t have that luxury at the one downtown; it’s just too small,” he said.

For the remodel, Rettell is interested in a complete makeover both inside and outside. He plans for an outdoor bar and fireplace and for the inside to have a classic, timeless feel.

Mitchell Johnson, communications and multimedia coordinator for the village of Niles, told Pioneer Press that the new restaurant location falls within the Gross Point – Touhy TIF District, informally called the Touhy Triangle. The redevelopment agreement the village made with Rettell’s company provides for up to $1.6 million in “pay as you go” reimbursement from TIF funds.

Recently, the village of Niles also entered into a $96 million “pay-as-you-go” TIF deal that the Village Board preliminarily approved on Sept. 26.

Niles’ Finance Director John Melaniphy said at that time that TIF agreements, which many municipalities use to redevelop non-performing properties, are based on the principle that a redeveloped property has a higher worth, which will generate more property tax revenue.

Melaniphy also explained that the developer has to build or improve the property first before getting reimbursed from TIF funds.

Rettell said he decided to apply for TIF funds only after finding out that the restaurant is in a TIF zone.

Wildwood Tavern owner and manager Mark Freedman told Pioneer Press in January that he closed Wildwood temporarily to remodel the space. When reached by phone last week, Freedman confirmed the restaurant was closed for good, saying that after the pandemic the restaurant never saw the business it used to have.

Rettell acknowledged that other restaurants have tried their luck at the same spot only to close down. A few blocks to the east, Graziano’s Brick Oven Pizza , which had been successful for 30 years, closed its doors, leaving a vacuum of sit-down restaurants in the immediate area.

Rettell said that change can be a good thing for Crosby’s in Niles. “COVID has changed things permanently, and you see a lot of restaurant companies going out to the suburbs and being successful.”

The restaurant is expected to have 50 to 60 full-time employees, according to Rettell, with seasonal part-time employees in the summer. When asked if more Four Star Restaurant Groups were coming to the suburbs, Rettell replied that while Crosby’s Kitchen is the first one, he hopes it’s not the last one.

“We’re focused right now on our existing restaurants and this project, and this project only,” he said.

When the Niles Village Board voted to approve the TIF deal at Tuesday’s meeting, Trustees Morgan Dubiel and Marryann Warda were not present. Mayor George Alpogianis, a restaurateur himself, praised Four Star Restaurant Group before the vote saying they have had great success with the restaurants they have already established, estimating Crosby’s Kitchen to be “one of the better restaurants we’re going to be having in Niles.”

Trustee Craig Neidermaier commented that Crosby’s Kitchen will be a high-quality restaurant appropriate for special occasions.

Former Niles village trustee and Niles business owner Chris Hanusiak got a chance to speak at public comment to voice his uneasiness with the TIF deal. Restaurants are a risky business, he pointed out, and Four Star Restaurant Group had not yet bought the restaurant from Wildwood. He also pointed out that a business plan from Four Star Restaurant Group was not available on the village website. “You would be laughed out of a bank if you brought this proposal,” said Hanusiak.

Hanusiak added that because of the ongoing development in Niles, the village should slow down on their use of TIF, so that schools, libraries and park districts can get more property tax revenue.