Tucson is full of bizarre historic relics, which can make eating out a fun adventure.
At the new downtown restaurant Reilly’s Craft Pizza & Drink, eating at a funeral home is not as bizarre of an experience as you might expect.
From the outside, a dingy neon sign is a remnant of the history of Reilly’s funeral home. Throughout the 20th century, it was Tucson’s place to bring your dead. Yet after closing in 1990, the building sat vacant for many years.
Fast forward to 2007, when a kid with a knack for food and design converted the building into a stylish craft restaurant with the kind of charm Tucson hadn’t seen in years.
Barely one month after opening, Reilly’s has already caused a stir among old and young, Tucson natives and university students alike.
As Tyler Fenton sat bored in his “Mind, Matter and God” lecture amongst several hundred students his freshman year, he drafted a basic menu and restaurant concept. His dream was realized only once his father bought the vacant building in 2007.
His concept became tangible, but not without a lot of hard work.
Fenton has a lot more responsibilities than any 22-year-old he knows of. A lot goes into owning a restaurant, he says. For the first couple of weeks since opening, he has worked from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. straight to ensure the success of the restaurant and guests’ experiences.
“For me, this is my life’s goal,” Fenton said. “In my family, there is a joke that at a young age, I really liked to eat well.” When his mom’s cooking couldn’t satisfy his highly refined palette, he learned how to cook his own dishes.
In middle school, Fenton began to cultivate his cooking knowledge: buying cookbooks, watching the Food Network and cooking dinner almost every night. It paid off when he finally got his own restaurant job in town.
At Reilly’s, Fenton even has a hand in making his own dishes. He can be found in the back kitchen baking his own desserts, such as his house special, tiramisu in a jar, which he sold out of last weekend.
The menu focuses on artisan craft pizzas made fresh and cooked in a wood-burning stone oven. The “speck and egg” pizza is an interesting option for daring breakfast lovers but other pizzas topped with truffle oils and roasted crimini mushrooms are certain to delight. Pasta dishes and salads can also be split between friends or couples to easily share the flavors of the menu.
For smaller bites, the zucchini chips with lemon aioli sauce are filled with flavor and the lightly breaded quality is far from being too fried or greasy.
Don’t think Reilly’s is just for a dinner date, however. Fenton’s gourmet sandwiches are the perfect mid-afternoon pick-me-up when paired with a fresh dessert, such as the butterscotch budino, to finish off the meal.
In late afternoon and at dusk the bar has a stained glass effect, which lights up the colorful bottles in a way that must lure in at least as many people as the cocktail menu. To contribute to the playfulness of the classy establishment, specials and menu items are written in chalk on walls and arches above the bar and over the pizza hearth.
Reilly’s provides both modern and classic aesthetics with a dangling chandelier and arched moldings that replicate a gothic era cathedral, and red accents in a mostly cool-toned restaurant. Despite the restaurant’s renovations, Fenton kept the architecture’s integrity. Fenton pays respect to the building’s history by keeping the name Reilly as well as the neon marquee sign.
“The whole idea of Reilly’s is to make you feel like you’re not in downtown Tucson, but a more relaxing environment,” said Fenton. “Our job is to bring people joy through food and service, not just a ‘dive’ for food, but we put a lot of detail in the atmosphere to make it feel comfortable and hip.”
What’s next for Reilly’s? By the end of the year, Fenton hopes to open up the back area as a beer garden with indoor and outdoor sections. The menu will be comprised of a selection of 40 draft beers, as well as cocktails and small foods. There will even be bocce games. Rumors have already begun spreading about an underground speakeasy-themed lounge and dance club named — what else — “The Morgue.”