xWhile sidewalk patio servers in patios were wearing masks, as mandated by law, few pedestrians passing by were geared up while navigating crowded sidewalks and tables were crammed together at several restaurants. That was just part of the scene Wednesday as Chicago’s restaurants opened for outdoor dining.
The scene along Wells Street was happy. Folks were in a celebratory mood with loud conversation and drinking. The city allows customers at restaurants to remove their masks once seated. But few bothered to bring them with them.
Scott Weiner is stressing safety. The co-owner of the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group was eager to show off the safety guidelines at his Old Town rooftop restaurant and bar, Utopian Tailgate: “I want to show that you can safely go to a restaurant,” Weiner says.
Utopian Tailgate stands on top of the famous Second City comedy club where it opened last year. Crews have installed plexiglas shields on the bar that allow parties of two to have their own space in between dividers. They’ve rearranged the furniture, and there’s even a foot pedal on the bathroom door that allows people to use their feet to exit without having their hands.
Every restaurant has different safety measures. Utopian Tailgate has servers wearing latex disposable gloves. The restaurant had been open for more than three hours and one serve said she had gone through about 30 pairs as she disposed of dirty ones. Other restaurant owners say gloves discourage workers from washing their hands. They’d rather employees regularly lather up with soap and hot water.
Weiner acknowledges that not everyone is ready to visit or reopen a restaurant. There are safety concerns, and there’s the emotions from the marches to protest racist police brutality. Weiner says he attended the Lakeview protest. The experience made him feel that he wanted to open his restaurant more than ever, to give fatigued customers an outlet and a way to connect with friends they haven’t seen in months.
There was a dichotomy in Gold Coast where Carmine’s and Tavern on Rush served customers. Across the street from Mariano Park — infamously known as the Viagra Triangle — the legendary Gibsons Steakhouse remained dormant, its windows boarded up to prevent looting. Gibsons is reevaluating when it will open its patio.
But Gold Coast customers weren’t spending too much time looking at the boarded-up windows. They were a little older than the Old Town crowd seen earlier that day. The volume levels were lower, but there was the same laughter and smiles and diners poured olive oil and sipped wine.
That atmosphere carried a few blocks south in River North. A customer seated at a sidewalk patio asks when he’ll have to leave. It’s a little past 8 p.m., and the city has instilled a 9 p.m. curfew following the late-night vandalism that started over the weekend.
“We’re not going to do that curfew bullshit,” the owner replies back. A police SUV would pass by later. His staff have set up tables and benches — all six feet away from each other — along the street. It gives Chicago a very European feel. Guests are smiling, sommeliers are excited about recommending wines to guests for the first time in weeks.
Any restaurant owner will say the momentum from an opening day is hard to sustain. And as Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said, outdoor dining won’t be much of a savior in a city like Chicago where the weather is volatile. Lightfoot says indoor dining guidelines may be released soon.
The city also will eventually debut its “Make Way For Diners” program where it closes streets to allow tables and chairs, adding valuable capacity for customers. None of the six intersections the city announced for its pilot program were ready for Wednesday. The city may roll out that program late next week.