Generally, there were positive vibes over the weekend in Lakeview where diners ate and drank on a six-block stretch of Broadway Street that was closed off to cars. Lakeview is the first neighborhood participating in the city’s “Make Way” program, in which dine-in restaurants (and eventually bars) could resume serving customers in the wake of COVID-19. The city considers Lakeview a beta test as officials determine if the program would work in other neighborhoods beyond Lakeview and the five others initially announced.
While the city allowed outdoor dining on June 1 for restaurants with patios, not eatery has those outdoor seats. The “Make Way” program allows restaurants without patios to seat customers while increasing the capacities for restaurants already with outdoor options.
From Friday, June 12, through Sunday, June 14, crowds could walk through Broadway, from Belmont to Diversey. Thirty-two restaurants — like Korean wing slinger Crisp, modern Mexican restaurant Chilam Balam, and Irish pub Wilde Bar & Restaurant — offered table service for the first time since COVID-19 closed dining rooms in mid-March. The streets will be closed every Friday through Saturday through the end of June. Restaurant owners say they hope to make a good impression that keeps the programs going through the summer. Bottom line: They don’t want Chicago to see spikes in novel coronavirus cases like the ones in Dallas and Houston, which have forced restaurants to close. New York City also saw crowds that drew the ire of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
In Lakeview, the middle of the streets were open for pedestrians, with tables set up close to curbs. Each restaurant had its own seating section. There were a few communal areas for people to sit down, perhaps to drink a boba tea from Tea Ninja or grab a snack from Momo Factory. Not all car traffic was cut off. There were areas marked off for third-party delivery drivers. Crossing guards also let auto traffic in via Wellington Avenue so cars could pass through.
On Friday, most pedestrians were wearing masks. But Saturday drew larger crowds with more people ignoring the state’s order to wear facial coverings in spaces where social distancing is difficult. Overall, restaurants were taking guidelines — requiring masks, posting safety signage, and spacing tables more than six feet away —seriously and didn’t want to attract complaints and fines as steep as $10,000.
Soraya Rendon, owner of Chilam Balam, was delighted to see customers again. They cleared out their dining room moving their 14 chairs and tables outside; they don’t have time or money to buy patio-specific furniture. Outdoor dining allows the Mexican restaurant to operate at 100-percent capacity. By early Friday afternoon, their reservations were booked for dinner. It wasn’t accepting walk-ins.
Many restaurants, like Chilam Balam, adopted a reservations-only policy. Walk-ins had to wait as long as three hours. As with any restaurant opening, it’s going to take staff time to work out kinks, especially when workers are besieged with new regulations like the six-foot rule and mandatory masks for servers.
Walk-in diners would have a better chance at Fancy Plants Cafe, the vegan restaurant on Briar and Broadway. Chef and owner Kevin Schuder says he was pleased with the traffic coming in to the cafe. During the day, casual coffee and pastries were available for walk-ins. Evening dinner was available via ticketed reservations.
Lakeview restaurants paid for a $150 outdoor dining license (apparently, the city isn’t waiving these fees). The city worked with the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, which came up with a street plan for tables. Space was in heavy demand. DryHop Brewers and sibling Roebuck Pizza were at full capacity for their the outdoor spaces. The manager was eyeing the empty space next door in front of Robert Jeffrey Hair Salon to set up more tables. The studio didn’t have much use for outdoor dining space.
Along the closed stretch, there are two bars without food — Friar Tuck’s and Dram Shop. Both sat the weekend out, remaining closed. DryHop was in summer festival mode with coolers with kegs serving draft beer. DryHop, Avenue Tavern, Monsignor Murphy’s, Wilde, and Caesar’s were all restaurants serving beer and cocktails outside.Bars, which can open starting on Wednesday, will eventually be added to the mix. There were reports of visitors importing their own alcohol, making purchases from a nearby liquor store or packing up a bag of roadies. This is the typical street festival behavior that Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned Chicagoans about last month as she announced the program. COVID-19 has stripped street festivals from Chicagoans, and Lightfoot doesn’t want locals to use open road dining as a street fest substitute. She threatened to take away outdoor dining if irresponsible crowds began gathering without masks the same way patrons did in mid-March for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Bar owners allowed customers to cram into taverns.
In Lincoln Park, a short drive from Lakeview, restaurants like Chicago’s Dog House and Galit, could benefit from the city closing off Halsted and Fullerton. Dog House owner Aaron Wolfson says he’d welcome the chance to serve more customers. Summer street fest are big for his business and without them, he’s forced to improvise. He’s treating his restaurant like a virtual kitchen and has started to make tacos along side his customary encased meats. He says he’s got an other idea percolating.
Lakeview is one of the six neighborhoods part of the first batch of street closures. Others are Chatham, Gold Coast, Little Italy, Little Village, and West Loop. North Side neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park, may have to wait. The George Floyd protests have placed increasing pressure on the city when it comes to equality. Critics accused Lightfoot with protecting downtown businesses when the city closed down expressway exits and shut down the CTA during protests earlier in the month.
Lakeview owners didn’t have much time to prepare for the closing of the streets. DryHop’s Shuff says he paid his $150 license fee at 11 a.m. Friday, only an hour before the streets opened to customers. Lightfoot announced the Make Way For Diners program on May 29, Roads could supposedly close for outdoor seating on June 3. On Monday, the city dropped the “for diners” part of the program’s name to include bars.
Over the weekend West Loop restaurant owners weren’t given much indication when Randolph Street would close for outdoor dining. Randolph Restaurant Row is one of the city’s most famous strips for restaurants with entries from famous chefs Stephanie Izard and Rick Bayless.