Chicago officials have portrayed outdoor dining as a pandemic lifeline for the city’s world-class dining scene. More than a month after the state shut down restaurants, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago officials floated a plan to close down city streets to vehicular traffic. The Make Way program enables restaurants to serve customers in the middle of the street, in a pandemic environment that’s safer versus indoor dining.
So far eight streets are participating in the program; Jarvis Street in Rogers Park joins the group starting this weekend, according to Block Club Chicago. The first, Broadway Street in Lakeview, launched on June 12. Streets that were initially announced as participants have been nixed, such as 75th Street in Chatham. The city is working with local chambers which communicate with restaurant owners. A spokesperson for the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department says they’ve been slammed with requests.
Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, says the Broadway Street pilot program in June went well, but efforts to arrange follow-up events on the same street were stymied by the local Chicago Police Department commander. After an extended back-and-forth between the chamber, police, and the mayor’s office, she now hopes to hold open streets dining on Broadway on the last weekend of July 31.
“We’ve been waiting anxiously for weeks because our commander denied the permit for outdoor dining for anything in the district,” Martino says. “I think he was inundated with so many applications coming in, and he had questions about safety, but it’s been a frustrating process.”
Police approval is required for a permit to set up open street dining, she says, but the department doesn’t provide security or resources for the event itself. The chamber, now responsible for covering essential components like traffic barriers and trash receptacles, is requiring restaurants to pay into a fund to defray the costs of these resources.
“We don’t even get a free barricade, a garbage dumpster — nothing,” Martino says. “Everything is paid for by us. People think, ‘Oh it’s just closing a street.’ We have to tell neighbors, set up barricades, bring out tables and get rentals. Not everybody has a lot of tables and chairs they can just bring out of the restaurant.”
Soraya Rendon, owner of Mexican restaurant Chilam Balam, says she was surprised to hear that she’ll have to pay $300 to participate in open street dining on Broadway. Despite the costs, she says Martino and the chamber’s support is essential for the survival of her business, especially as she’s waiting to hear back about a patio permit she submitted a month ago. “That lady deserves a trophy,” Rendon says.
Rendon and her team had a rocky pilot launch in June with diners who seemed to confuse open streets dining during a pandemic with an outdoor festival; she describes customers wandering around with drinks, congregating in large groups, and occupying random tables without regard for staff or other patrons.
Despite a difficult first night, however, Rendon says days two and three of the initial open streets run were “wonderful,” and she’s excited to do it again. She also hopes customers will be respectful of the masking and social distancing rules her workers have to enforce. “We have rules for a reason and we’re just following them.”
Over in West Loop, the service roads along Randolph Street are now closed every day for street dining. That gives Randolph Restaurant Row, one of the most popular dining strips in the city, additional seating capacity. Chicago has set a 25-percent limit on indoor dining capacity.
Chicago restauranteur Brendan Sodikoff has two restaurants along Randolph Street — Au Cheval and Maude’s Liquor Bar. While Au Cheval is open for patio service, Maude’s remains closed. It’s not worth reopening Maude’s for outdoor dining, at least for the time being. These are hard choices, and for Sodikoff, he says it’s easier to furlough workers to allow them to collect the $600 per week federal unemployment bonus.
“This is just the reality, nobody’s winning right now,” Sodikoff says. “If everyone’s willing to hurt a little bit, we’re going to be OK.”
Elsewhere, the city hasn’t been able to implement the program. The Chicago Cubs continue efforts to close Clark Street in front of Wrigleyville. In Hyde Park, one restaurant owner says she’s struck out with trying to get 53rd Street closed for dining. Chef and owner Laricia Chandler Baker, or “Chef Fab,” of Hyde Park vegan and vegetarian-friendly spot Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, says she would leap an opportunity to set up open streets dining near her 53rd Street restaurant. Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) was supportive of the idea, but the majority of business owners were concerned about the costs so they voted against the program, according to Baker’s rep.
“It would be wonderful,” says Baker. “There are so many people we can’t fit on the little [four-table] patio we have, so it would be great for customers to be able to sit down and eat.”
Though business slowed significantly during the first few weeks of the stay-at-home order in March and April, she says the long lines of customers she saw prior to the pandemic have returned, and she’s seen an influx of new faces as the Black Lives Matter protests have motivated many to focus on supporting Black-owned businesses. Getting a shoutout from Beyonce on the first page of the superstar’s Black-owned establishment directory didn’t hurt either, Baker says.
She hopes local officials will continue to help support independent restaurants with events like these, especially as Hyde Park’s summer festivals were canceled because of the pandemic. “[Do] something fun with the community that won’t create a huge crowd,” she says. “Allow people to step outside and get a breath of fresh air... have one or two days when people can sit and have a quick lunch with a little music.”
The city also allows three restaurants or more to combine forces to share a closed street. That’s happened in Lincoln Park at the corner of Halsted and Schubert. That’s where Mayan Palace, Tandoor Char House, and Sapori Trattoria are entering its second weekend of a combined side street patio.
“Ald. Michelle Smith really helped during the whole process,” says Sapori chef and owner Anthony Barbanente.
It’s a cross-cultural partnership between Italian, South Asian, and Mexican chefs. The owners say about 300 customers dined on each of the first weekend’s three days. Weekend street dining continues through October 4.
“It’s a learning process for us,” says Tandoor Char House’s Faraz Sardharia. “We’re trying to adapt to what’s in front of us.”
For example, Sardharia had to express order an outdoor host stand from Amazon. That way, customers would know they had an outdoor presence. Tandoor Char House’s outdoor operations include one server and two food runners who bring bagged food to the patio, located 400 feet away from the restaurant. It’s an unusual setup, but server Rayshaun Vonperbandt says after being furloughed, he’s got energy to run back and forth.
“I have four months of reserve, I’m ready,” he says.
Customers won’t have to race back to Tandoor Char House to use a rest room. They can use the ones at Sapori’s. Barbanente says they’ve had to educate some customers on social distancing policies. Vonperbandt says wearing a mask is uncomfortable in the heat, but he’s committed after seeing people crowd into bars on TV elsewhere around the country.
“I get home and I take it off and I still have phantom sensation on my face,” Vonperbandt says.
UPDATE: This story was updated to show that Ald. Sophia King’s office was supportive of an open streets dining program but local business owners voted against the plan.