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Chicago’s City Council May Bring Back Outdoor Street Dining

New Mayor Brandon Johnson attempts to revive a stalled proposal to preserve what was a pandemic lifeline for restaurants and bars

A traffic sign blocking a street.
Fulton Market was among the streets closed for Chicago’s expanded outdoor dining program.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago
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.

With Memorial Day Weekend quickly approaching, Chicagoans hope for clear skies to mark the unofficial start of patio season. Sure, the city may have a token nice day in April or May, but the Midwest’s mercurial nature poses a challenge for the city’s hospitality industry when it comes to relying on weather reports to alert staff for outdoor service.

The city’s expanded outdoor dining program — when the city pedestrianized streets and shut off automobile traffic on strips like Broadway in Lakeview, Clark Street in River North, and Fulton Market in West Loop — allowed restaurants to set up tables and chairs and changed the landscape of dining. It was, forgive the dated jargon, a “pandemic lifeline” to enable restaurants to operate as health experts worried about the spread of COVID indoors. Restaurant owners had some complaints about the permitting process. It required three businesses on the same block to jointly apply. So far, the streets have remained open and there’s no indication that street dining would return in this post-vaccine world.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s program also allowed for an automatic renewal process to take advantage of any good weather. The program also permitted tables in parking lots and curb lanes. It brought a little joy during the darkest days of the pandemic.

A patio on a street.
Three Lincoln Park restaurants had applied jointly to use the curb lane for dining.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

If Chicagoans wondered if the city would close streets in the future, apparently the automatic renewals irked alderpeople who wanted control over the process. The Sun-Times reports that 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa says the auto-renewals posed issues to other downtown businesses (street closures took away parking from potential shoppers, for instance): “Community stakeholders wanted the opportunity to weigh in. The outgoing administration also wanted to fast-track some controversial street closures, like Clark Street,” the alderman adds.

Mayor Brandon Johnson will oversee his first city council meeting on Wednesday and has introduced a revised outdoor dining ordinance that nixes the auto-renewals to require aldermanic approval annually.

The Sun-Times also points out that only restaurants with on-premise consumption — with dining rooms or tables and chairs — are eligible. The stipulation feels eerily similar to food truck restrictions where restaurant owners complained they were at a disadvantage for paying property taxes and other expenses. To-go-only pizzerias or small taquerias can’t take advantage of the program. Neither would ghost kitchens. Bars that serve food would also be eligible. Time to clean out those mini pizza ovens, tavern owners.

The ever-so-nimble city council could vote on the measure during Wednesday’s meeting, but that won’t be in time for Memorial Day weekend. That timing could remind restaurant owners of the delays the council took to establish a pandemic-era fee freeze on third-party delivery services. The city says it will immediately begin accepting applications pending the council’s vote.