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Chicago’s Winter Dining Challenge Winners Announced, Restaurateurs Remain Skeptical

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Who’s going to pay to heat these cabins?

Blizzard in Chicago
Chicago’s winter poses a challenge
Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While this weekend will give Chicagoans a dose of pleasant fall weather and brisk patio business, the season’s usual frost and overcast skies pose loom as restaurants continue to tread water during the pandemic. The city in releasing the three winners of its Winter Dining Challenge, hope to ease the burden. The competition sought ideas for safe (and warm) outdoor dining.

The winning ideas are modular cabins with radiant heat, modular blocks with seats and heat, and modified kotasus that serve as heated tables. A panel, which included Rick Bayless, helped select the winners. Each will receive a $5,000 cash prize.

“There’s no question Chicago is a city of innovation,” Bayless writes in a statement. “These designs are encouraging and I have no doubt many restaurants will make them work, but the truth is that our industry needs federal funding help to survive the winter.”

While the country waits federal action, something President Donald Trump has already delayed, local leaders are scrambling. For the next phase of the design challenge, the Illinois Restaurant Association will choose local construction companies to develop prototypes and test them at neighborhood restaurants (also selected by the association) in the next few weeks. Competition parter BMO Harris Bank will cover those costs.

A rendering of a row of small, translucent rooms that contain a table and chairs. Snow is falling outside.
A rendering of ASD | SKY’s modular cabins
ASD | SKY [Official Rendering]

The city also announced a new $500,000 grant program that’s designed to help Chicago restaurants fund “winterizing” efforts in their outdoor spaces, according to the same news release. The grant was created in partnership with restaurant association and third-party deliverer DoorDash. The program is reminiscent of one in Washington, D.C.

Others on the judges panel include David Manilow, creator of PBS’s Check, Please! and Malcolm Hilliard, a veteran Chicago chef who’s worked at Alinea, Sixteen, and LondonHouse. The Tribune shined a light on his story as a Black chef dealing with service industry racism back in August.

Manilow says the city did a thoughtful job in bringing together many creative ideas with kept in mind both customers and restaurant staff.

A rendering of a diners sitting inside a series of blocks along a winter street.
A rendering of winner Neil Reindel’s modular “blocks”
Neil Reindel [Official Rendering]

Still, many of the city’s restaurant owners remain skeptical and say they would prefer tax breaks and funding. Keeping a restaurant warm during winter is expensive. Will the city work with utility companies to provide breaks to restaurant owners already struggling with paying their bills? Mirroring their federal counterparts, there was also worry that Chicago program would only benefit larger restaurant groups — owners named Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Boka Restaurant Group, and One Off Hospitality Group.

“This is all while actual small business owners are grinding everyday with no relief in sight,” says Zubair Mohajir, chef and owner of Wazwan.

Soraya Rendon, owner of Chilam Balam in Lakeview, says she’s not sure if the contest is a blessing for struggling restaurants: “Maybe at some point the harshness of a Chicago winter cannot be avoided and I worry about workers out in the elements.”

Other restaurant owners worry about change their business strategy. The word “pivot” has become a cliche in recent months as restaurant with a focus on dine in have shifted to carryout and delivery. Asking restaurants to do this again, on top of ensuring they keep customers and staffers safe from COVID-19 is daunting.

Won Kim, chef at Kimski in Bridgeport, says the government needs to do more rather than awarding $5,000 jackpots: “It’s a complicated issue, obviously, but holding a fun contest pitting people against each other again is not the solution,” he says.

A rendering of a low wooden table covered by a blue blanket with a heating element, with dotted lines under the table representing heat trapped underneath.
A rendering of Ellie Henderson’s modified kotatsu, or heated table
Ellie Henderson [Official Rendering]

The challenge was first announced in late August, and by mid-September had accumulated more than 640 submissions. The contest attracted a wide range of ideas, ranging from the including converting a CTA train car to a restaurant.

The cabins were proposed by creative design firm ASD | SKY that’s headquartered in Atlanta. It’s inspired by ice fishing huts that fit within the boundaries of a parking space. They’ll include radiant floor heat and are designed to be both low-cost and ADA accessible.

Neil Reindel, a Chicago-based designer who works for Perkins&Will (the firm that renovated Rush University Hospital), proposed his own modular plan: “blocks” that each seat two inside a parking lane. Restaurants could serve larger parties by grouping blocks together. Though they wouldn’t be fully enclosed, the modules should contain a thermal mesh heating system.

Finally, Ellie Henderson (an art director for Purohit Navigation) submitted plans for heated tables that are essentially kotatsu, or low wooden table frames covered by a heavy blanket on top of a heat source. These are popular Japanese household items that date back to the 14th Century. A local graphic designer, Henderson does note that low tables aren’t accessible for everyone, and that taller tables would be necessary for patrons in wheelchairs.

  • Desperate for Outdoor Dining Solutions for Winter, Chicago Launches Contest [Eater Chicago]
  • Chicago’s COVID-19 Winter Dining Challenge Attracts 640 Submissions to Save Restaurants [Eater Chicago]
  • Chicago’s outdoor dining design competition winners announced: A cozy cabin, block modules and heated tables. [Chicago Tribune]

Boka Restaurant Group

820 West Lake Street, , IL 60607 (312) 238-9896 Visit Website


1742 West Division Street, , IL 60622 (312) 722-6911 Visit Website


1132 W Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60642 (312) 624-8363 Visit Website


954-960 West 31st Street, , IL 60608 (773) 823-7336

Chilam Balam

3023 North Broadway, , IL 60657 (773) 296-6901 Visit Website

Lettuce Entertain You

5419 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago, IL 60640 (773) 878-7340