HP Chamber Speak

By JoAnn Fastoff Blackman

Eating outside everyday

Every year on March 1, the city of Chicago begins to allow restaurants and bars to set up seating on the sidewalks for al fresco dining and drinking. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed legislation to let Chicago’s 700 sidewalk cafes stay open year-round instead of just nine months out of the year.

The year-round sidewalk café license is just one of a host of mayoral reforms that were recently unveiled and aimed at improving a small business climate that has already benefited from the consolidation of business licenses. “The point” according to Chris Wheat, the Mayor’s Chief of Policy, “is to not try to throw a lot of patios out in January. It’s to give businesses flexibility in terms of what we’re hearing from them.” And according to the Mayor, “Giving Chicago restaurants the freedom and flexibility to operate outdoors in every season will be good for businesses’ bottom lines, good for job creation and good for Chicago.”

Why would anyone want to eat outside..in January..in Chicago?

Here’s an opinion: Rex Huppke of The Chicago Tribune says, “…the best part of Chicago winters is the lack of people eating outside.”

He might be right but, and this is a big but, there are scores of people who would like the chance to eat outside all year round, regardless of the weather. Well maybe not while it’s snowing. Ok, maybe not while it’s raining either.

A little history of eating outside.

The practice of an elegant meal eaten out-of-doors, rather than a farm worker’s dinner in the field, was connected with respite from hunting originating in the Middle Ages. Food historians tell us picnics evolved from the elaborate traditions of moveable outdoor feasts enjoyed by the wealthy.

From time immemorial the outdoor meal has been a celebration probably because in earlier days there were fewer, (if any) large buildings. So, when groups got together, it was to inhabit the out-of-doors out of necessity. It was probably how barbecues and picnics became so popular.

Others enjoyed summertime dinners in the backyards of small Italian and French restaurants in Europe as early as the 1890s. Although Louis Sherry claimed to have set up the first sidewalk café in the U.S. outside his New York restaurant in 1900, Prohibition defeated the dreams of American soldiers returning from WWI who had enjoyed sidewalk cafes in Paris and wanted to reproduce them in America.

Some of you may recall that Mayor Daley I banned outdoor food stands decades ago and followed it up with orders to crack down on moving food carts on the grounds that they were unhealthy and dangerous to children. He never allowed restaurants to be able to secure a sidewalk cafe permit because he believed outdoor eating would attract rodents..which meant rats. And, the fruit did not fall far from the tree as Mayor Daley II made it known for years he did not want Chicago to become another New York, citing “Gotham’s filth and stench.”

All the same, Sam Toia, President, Illinois Restaurant Association should be happy as he has been lobbying for a year-round sidewalk café license for over a year. “Chicago’s weather can be very unpredictable” Toia said. “But if we get warm days like we did in February 2017, we would like restaurants to be able to take advantage of this.”

Don’t believe a sidewalk cafe permit is a shoo-in just because a restaurant has applied for it. The issuance of a Sidewalk Café Permit is a privilege granted by the City Council. Among the many required steps, the owner has to furnish a certificate of insurance evidencing commercial general liability insurance, is responsible to the community surrounding the sidewalk café premises, indicates that no portion of the sidewalk café is elevated in the style of a deck, and that BYOB is not allowed at the establishment if the establishment already serves liquor.

Now that summer is upon us (maybe), it’s time to move dinner to the great outdoors. Today there are many opportunities to eat al fresco, and these Hyde Park restaurants are lucky enough to have an existing outdoor patio space:  Pockets & Kingoberry Frozen Yogurt; The Sit Down Cafe & Sushi Bar; Cafe 53; Nando’s Peri-Peri Chicken; Pizza Capri; Chant; Starbucks Coffee; Porkchop; Ja’ Grill; Einstein Bros. Bagels; Hyatt Hotel; A-10; Noodles, Etc; Medici on 57th, Salonica; Seven Ten Lanes, Nella Pizza e Pasta, Piccolo Mondo.

By the way, al fresco is an Italian word meaning outside, open air, unconfined. A second, less common meaning of the word is getting out of prison. Hmm, I think we all feel that way after a Chicago winter.