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Chicago Restaurants Are Now Open for Patio Dining

Patios are ready, but open roads appear on hold

A worker at Tavern on Rush in Gold Coast sets up the patio space.
A worker at Tavern on Rush in Gold Coast sets up the patio space.
Courtesy of Stefani Restaurants
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

It’s been 78 days since Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed dine-in restaurants and bars, and Wednesday marks another step toward economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago and across Illinois. Wednesday, even with a rainy forecast, represents the first day restaurants and coffee shops could welcome customers back, albeit only for outdoor dining. Bars without food will have to wait.

Customers and staff will have to wear masks (diners can unmask after sitting down), and tables will have to be six feet apart. Over at S&G Restaurant, a Lakeview diner at the corner of Southport and Lincoln, a party of two sat down for patio seating around 6:30 a.m., says Frances Kountas. Her family owns the restaurant.

“They didn’t even mind sitting in the rain,” Kountas says. “They were so happy to be sitting down.”

Kountas says she’s also excited to see customers. However, large restaurant companies like Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Gibsons Restaurant Group, Boka Restaurant Group, and One Off Hospitality Group will not open restaurants on Wednesday. Some will open Thursday, with others on Friday. A combination of rain, mental fatigue from the George Floyd police brutality protests, and worries about looters have many restaurants waiting.

Some establishments, including independents, don’t see the benefit of putting any workers or customers at risk. They’re waiting for a vaccine. Michael Simmons, the chef and owner of Cafe Marie-Jeanne in Humboldt Park told the Tribune that “we haven’t gotten anywhere with the disease. On top of that, there’s massive civil unrest because our government hates black people. So getting six people on a plexiglass patio is such a low priority for us right now.”

The city’s open road program, which closes streets to vehicles so restaurants could set up tables and chairs, also doesn’t appear to be a priority. Last week, the city announced it would close streets in Chatham (75th Street), Gold Coast (Rush Street), Lakeview (Broadway), Little Italy (Taylor Street), Little Village (26th Street), West Loop (Randolph Street).

Restaurant owners in Chatham, Lakeview, Gold Coast, and West Loop say open road dining won’t happen until next week. That’s despite Mayor Lori Lightfoot assertion Tuesday that the program would debut Wednesday. Earlier this week, as worries stemming from looters mounted, local leaders began losing hope that open roads would start Wednesday as planned.

The permit process has been slow. Many restaurant owners only found out about the requirements, which are housed on the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events website, on Tuesday.

Greg Shuff, owner of DryHop Brewing in Lakeview, near Belmont and Broadway, says “it’s hard to staff [a] patio-only restaurant with the limited notice.” He does have good news: today he’ll open his sidewalk patios, including at Corridor Brewing on Southport.

Besides having little notice to gather application materials, restaurant owners worry about the time the city will take for review. City officials say it will take five days. The slow pace has been a common complaint. On Tuesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that makes to-go cocktails legal in Illinois after months of lobbying. But Lightfoot has said Chicago’s bars will need to wait two weeks for City Council members to introduce the legislation, and it could it could take until July to make the practice legal in Chicago. The next council meeting is scheduled for June 17.

Given that deliberate pace, a West Loop restaurant owner tells Eater Chicago he worries that open roads will only debut after the city allows for indoor dining. And by that time, it won’t really be the lifeline for struggling restaurants that both the state and city governments tout it to be.