Over the weekend, domes and tents began popping up around Chicago as restaurant owners try to to find ways to attract customers during the pandemic. They’ve started to sell customers on the experience of pod dining as a safe way to extend summer patio season into the fall. Fulton Market — home of popular Chicago restaurants, like Aba, Kuma’s Corner, and The Publican — was the first neighborhood for the program.
Temperatures over the weekend ranged from 63 degrees to just above freezing at 38. The domes are made out of polycarbonate that retains heat and can block the wind. These pods — some shaped like igloos, some like mini greenhouses — aren’t heated. There was confusion about that detail in marketing materials. There was also confusion to what restaurants would be beneficiaries of the program. Rooh, the modern Indian restaurant on Randolph Street, was mistakenly included in the announcement. Rooh owner Manish Mallick says he was never contacted about the project, as it’s for restaurants with “deep pockets.” He did receive an apology letter from the marketing team at Stella Artois, the chief sponsor of the event. Mallick has put up a tent over his make-shift patio. That strategy — in quickly adapting to the pandemic — had earned praise from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Word is that American Express will soon flex its own corporate muscle and sponsor a fleet of yurts further west on Fulton Market in front of Boka Restaurant Group’s Swift & Sons steakhouse. Meanwhile, about six miles northwest of Fulton Market in Avondale, James De Marte expressed skepticism when asked about the city’s outdoor program. De Marte is the chef at Pisolino, an Italian restaurant that morphed into a market after removing all its tables as a reaction to the pandemic. De Marte pointed outside to Belmont Avenue where a vacant bank building sat across the street. He says there’s no way the city would ever consider helping a small business like his away from downtown. The domes are an effort between the Illinois Restaurant Association, the city, and Stella Artois/Budweiser.
The city is taking the foundation it built when implementing its street dining program that closed off streets to vehicular traffic so restaurants could set up tables and chairs. The domes, in theory, could keep customers safer from germs spread by people seated in other parties. But there’s still a danger to staff entering and existing the pods, the Tribune points out. The Fulton Market domes, called “Dine Together, Apart,” lasts through November 21 — that’s the week before Thanksgiving Day. There’s a chance the domes could stay through December. Chicago’s winter is unpredictable at that time of the year. The snow plows could be out or it could remain sweatshirt weather. By that time, Chicago will have a better idea if its residents have an appetite to endure the cold for an outdoor meal.