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Chicago Tourist Attractions Revamping Restaurants for Post-Pandemic Future

Willis Tower is getting a live-fire restaurant, while Millennium Park also unveils new dining options

A view of a black skyscraper from the bottom looking all the way up
The Willis Tower is no longer just a very tall building with a view.
Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

As Chicago tourism begins to rebound after the pandemic-related closures of 2020 and Michigan Avenue begins to replace its empty storefronts with new attractions like the Museum of Ice Cream, two major tourist spots — Millennium Park and Willis Tower — are planning additions to their dining options in the form of new restaurants, cafes, and markets.

Millennium Park, billed as the Midwest’s top tourist attraction, will be getting several more food and drink options next spring, thanks to a $2.5 million investment from Eleven North Hospitality. The group plans to renovate the 140-seat restaurant formerly known as the Park Grill and add a Mexican cafe opposite the Bean sculpture and a coffee bar operated by Momentum Coffee, a small Black-owned South Side chain. There will also be two kiosks, one offering grab-and-go food items and the other selling Chicago-themed souvenirs, according to a city of Chicago news release.

The Park Grill was previously managed by James Horan, owner of Blue Plate Catering, and Michael O’Malley, owner of the Chicago Firehouse restaurant, who were, the Sun-Times reports, backed by investors who had close ties to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. The two restaurateurs then spent several years during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration in a legal battle with the city before reaching a settlement in 2016. Horan and O’Malley gave up the Park Grill last year because of legal bills and revenue losses from COVID-19. Eleven North is headed by John Wrenn, who runs Theater on the Lake under a deal reached during the Emanuel administration when his sister, Eileen Mitchell, was the mayor’s chief of staff.

Meanwhile, over at the Willis Tower, the Fifty/50 Group plans to open Kindling, a two-story restaurant with an outdoor patio. Kindling’s main focal point will be a wood-burning grill, where chefs will cook dishes like rotisserie chicken, brisket, and halibut. There will also be an outdoor area with a lawn with additional seating, plus artwork and lawn games.

Both Fifty/50 and the Willis Tower management are positioning Kindling as an alternative to pandemic-era social distancing. It’s the first first full-service restaurant in Catalog, the tower’s dining complex that also includes the second Chicago location of Urbanspace food hall. Urbanspace should open in the first quarter of 2022 and Kindling is shooting for the end of 2022.

Fifty/50 co-owner Scott Weiner says they began working on the project a year ago after Willis management invested $70 million in revamping the SkyDeck which reopened this spring, part of $500 million in overall renovations to the building. Weiner says the tower is “still one of the busiest workplaces in Chicago” even without all offices requiring employees to report to work.

“Noticing that there aren’t any happy hour or full-service places in the building — and that it’s so close to union station — we felt good about being there,” Weiner says, adding: “By the time we open, we think the pandemic will be well behind us and it definitely didn’t slow down Chicago tourism this last summer.”

August data released by Chicago’s tourism arm, Choose Chicago, would agree with Weiner’s assertions. The numbers showed increasing hotel occupancy rates with a Choose Chicago promotional campaign generating $79 million in hotel revenue from May 1 to August 22.

A branch of Foxtrot Market will also be moving into the Willis Tower, where it will join Catalog’s selection of food options, which already includes Rick Bayless’ Tortazo, Lettuce Entertain You’s Sushi-san, Sweetgreen, Shake Shack, Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken, and Brown Bag Seafood Co.

Millennium Park restaurants, 11 N. Michigan Avenue, planned for a spring opening.

Kindling, inside Willis Tower, 233 S. Wacker Drive, planned to open in late 2022.

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