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Chicago Imagines What Outdoor Dining May Look Like

Restaurants are weighing public health with economic anxieties

A CGI rendering of what outdoor dining could look like, with pink pedestrian walking in the middle of a street.
A rendering that imagines what outdoor dining could look like in Chicago.
Josh Pabst/RATIO Design

The news from Thursday, with Mayor Lori Lightfoot saying she doesn’t believe Chicago will be ready to reopen restaurants for outdoor dining on May 29, isn’t all holiday weekend jeer. Many restaurateurs aren’t yet comfortable with welcoming customers back into their spaces. A delay has been welcomed by many to ensure the city develops reopening guidelines that properly address limiting the spread of COVID-19.

During a Friday media briefing, Lightfoot said she expects to allow outdoor dining in “early June” which would mean before June 10. She added that the city will release reopening guidelines next week. She wants folks to know whenever that date is that COVID-19 will still be present and will “remain deadly, and we have to do everything we can to mitigate risk.”

With legislative sessions fired back up in Springfield, Lightfoot says she hasn’t had a chance to talk to Gov. J.B. Pritzker about reopening restaurants. But she has spoken to his staff.

Ownership at Baker Miller, the bakery in Lincoln Square, made a lengthy Facebook post Thursday describing the safety challenges they’re coping with regarding outdoor dining. Owners feel the push to open has been strictly fueled be economic hardships without giving enough weight to safety: “At this time, we are 100-percent certain that it is not safe to have customers congregating on our patio. For that reason, we will not be reopening our patio at the end of the month. We will wait and allow others to take the risk.”

We knew this day would come. The local government would say it’s okay to start reopening before we actually felt like it...

Posted by Baker Miller on Thursday, May 21, 2020

In general, flipping again and allowing customers to dine won’t come easy. Pandemic fatigue is real and figuring out logistics is difficult. It’s hard to pivot from takeout to another business model. In Avondale, Honey Butter Fried Chicken has a large and private patio, one that’s fenced in from the sidewalk. Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski are using that outdoor space for contactless pickup for their Sunday Dinner Club Friday meals and Monday burger nights. Eventually, they’ll reopen Honey Butter Fried Chicken and use the back windows for customer pickup. They’re in no rush to open the patio to diners.

Illinois Restaurant Association’s CEO & President Sam Toia calls the future “America 2.0” and predicting what it will look like is difficult. Restaurant and bar owners need reopening rules from Chicago officials. That includes guidelines on the maximum number of customers allowed, face coverings, distance between tables, and even what to do with condiment containers.

Architect Josh Pabst of RATIO Design spoke with WBEZ about his ideas on how the city could close streets for outdoor dining. Pabst talks about the need to balance health and the economy. WBEZ notes 1,200 Chicago businesses last year applied for sidewalk permits. Pabst’s drawings will remind Chicagoans of what closed streets look like during summer festival season. The city will have to work out an agreement with LAZ Parking when closing streets. The company, which handles the city’s parking meters, will want an impact fee, according to Toia. Staying at home has meant fewer drivers on the road, which means less parking meter money. That could complicate any deal to close streets.

Many restaurants in Hyde Park are anxious for outdoor dining, according to the Hyde Park Herald. The paper spoke with reps from Saucy Porka, Nella Pizza e Pasta, Ascione Bistro, among others. In the suburbs, Arlington Heights has embraced alteration with its “Arlington Alfresco” plan. The Daily Herald reports that the village wants to close major downtown streets to allow additional outdoor seating to raise the capacities for restaurants.

Toia has stressed that allowing outdoor dining isn’t ideal for every restaurant owner. The restaurant association still wants dine-in to commence earlier than the June 26 target date as detailed in the state’s novel coronavirus recovery plan. Restore Illinois was designed to also give local elected officials some control of their municipalities; it’s not a one-size-fits-all policy. Different parts of the state have different needs.

However, the lifeline thrown by Pritzker with outdoor dining doesn’t cross all socio-economic boundaries in Chicago. Jeremy Joyce, who runs Black People Eats, a website that keeps a database of black-owned businesses in Chicago, says he doesn’t think any of the restaurants he’s listed have sidewalk patios. That’s part systemic, which also feeds into geography. Most patios are clustered around Downtown Chicago.

Patience may be in short supply for restaurant and bar owners, but Toia says they’re still bargaining on a variety of measures. For example, Toia says state lawmakers are close to legalizing to-go cocktails. He made a football analogy, saying that they’re “in the red zone.” Hopefully, Springfield can earn a score for beleaguered bar owners.

In other news...

  • There is still plenty of merchandise Chicagoans could buy to support bars and restaurants that remain closed. One of the most compelling items comes in support of Crown Liquors, the packaged goods store and bar that’s closed in Logan Square. With the help of MP Shows, (the concert promoter that put together punk, emo, and metal gigs at Fireside Bowl, Beat Kitchen, and other venues across the city), Soothsayer Hot Sauce has released a 26-song digital music compilation to benefit Crown’s employees. It’s called “Shot Dice: A Compilation for Crown Liquors.” Customers could name their price and get the album on Bandcamp. Bad Copy has the scoop. White Mystery and Canadian Rifle are some of the bands featured.
  • Punch’s “Tip Your Bartender” virtual cocktail series will once again have some Chicago flavor. Richard Beltzer from Bad Hunter will be the featured bartender on at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. Customers are invited to tip via Venmo, and the promotion raises money for bars and restaurants closed down due to stay-at-home orders.
  • On May 22 to 28, Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center will offer the documentary Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy to stream online through its virtual series, “Film Center from Your Sofa.” Chef Diana Kennedy, now in her 90s, is a two-time James Beard Award-winner, the author of nine cookbooks, and is widely considered an expert on Mexican cuisine. The documentary weaves archival film along with fresh footage and interviews with Kennedy, famed chef and humanitarian José Andrés, Chicago’s own Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo), acclaimed Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara, and pioneering California chef and writer Alice Waters (Chez Panisse). Fans can sit in on a streaming Q&A with Cámara, Waters, director Elizabeth Carroll, and New York Times food columnist David Tanis at 7 p.m. on Sunday. More details are available on the center’s website.

Bad Hunter

802 West Randolph Street, , IL 60607 (312) 265-1745 Visit Website

Saucy Porka

335 South Franklin Street, , IL 60606 Visit Website

Nella Pizza e Pasta

1125 East 55th Street, , IL 60615 (773) 643-0603 Visit Website

Crown Liquors

2821 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60618 (773) 252-9741

Gene Siskel Film Center

164 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601 (312) 846-2800 Visit Website

Baker Miller

4655 North Lincoln Avenue, , IL 60625 (773) 654-3610 Visit Website

Frontera Grill

445 North Clark Street, , IL 60654 (312) 661-1434 Visit Website


445 North Clark Street, , IL 60654 (312) 661-1434 Visit Website

Ascione Bistro

1500 East 55th Street, , IL 60615 (773) 363-8161 Visit Website

Honey Butter Fried Chicken

3361 North Elston Avenue, , IL 60618 (773) 478-4000 Visit Website