The heat of summer 2013 took its sweet time arriving this year, even though summer officially began only last week. But as anyone in Chicago can tell you, the weather doesn't have to be ideal to make outdoor dining appealing.
Chicagoans, perhaps because they appreciate the fleeting nature of the outdoor season, perhaps because even a mild winter can be soul-crushing, embrace outdoor dining like a long-lost relative. Will we dine outside when it's 65 degrees out? Yes, we will. And if the place has a few electric heaters on hand, we'll consider lower temperatures.
Case in point: Dinner, some weeks ago, at Gather in Lincoln Square. It's a little too chilly for outdoor dining, but Gather's space has a canopy and heat lamps, so my friend and I are comfortable. In the course of an hour, we observe four parties enter the outdoor space, very tentatively checking out the comfort level, and each party contains at least one "c'mon, we can do this" member. One such hardy soul is overruled by his chilly companions, but the rest opt to stay outdoors. Nobody changes his mind later.
That's outdoor dining, Chicago-style.
My recommendations for outdoor spots in the city and suburbs are divided into new arrivals, places that offer views (always a selling point with the outdoor crowd) and places that have been favorites of mine for several years. I wouldn't eat at all these places in mid-60s weather, but with any luck that will be a moot point for the next three months.
The dec. Added to the Ritz-Carlton's offerings this year is a long open-air perch 12 stories above street level and equipped with cushioned rattan settees, canopies with heat lamps, cube-shaped cocktail tables that glow at night, a wavy roof-edge wall that shifts colors and an open glass fireplace adjacent to a reflective-steel sculpture called The Lenz (like a doughnut-shaped Bean). It's more futuristic than anything inside the Ritz-Carlton, and it's a very nice environment that has yet to be overrun by the excruciatingly hip crowd. The small-bites menu is more playful than satisfying, though you can always find sustenance at deca restaurant inside. 160 E. Pearson St., 312-573-5160.
Embeya. The very pretty sidewalk adjacent to this Vietnamese-inspired restaurant includes a 15-seat lounge and a series of white-umbrella-topped tables strung with lights. New for the summer are handcrafted cocktail snow cones and house-made sodas (spiking optional). A small-bites menu bridges the gap between lunch and dinner service, so you can always find something to nibble on here. 564 W. Randolph St., 312-612-5640.
Fountainhead. Ayn Rand might have made a fine restaurateur, recognizing the individual pursuit of happiness as the only reason people go to restaurants and positing 20 percent tips as a form of rational self-interest. But Fountainhead, the owners say, is not intended as an homage to the controversial author/philosopher, though I'd argue that chef Cleetus Friedman's food is responsible for a lot of individual happiness. The wood-on-wood rooftop patio, which boasts heat lamps along with wind and rain protection, has its own bar and tiny service kitchen; you can't get the full menu up here, but there are sriracha-kissed deviled eggs, a very nice meat and cheese board, salads, sandwiches and the ever-curious "bowl of pickled things." 1970 W. Montrose Ave., 773-697-8204.
Howells & Hood. I have to say, it was darn considerate of someone to open a restaurant that I could reach by elevator. Howells & Hood, which takes its name from the architects who designed Tribune Tower, sits in the tower alongside Pioneer Court, and though its courtside patio is huge (and includes a stand-alone bar), it's nearly always crowded; even in iffy weather, people will brave a seat here. The menu is a mix of pub-fare standards (including a very good signature burger) and more ambitious fare by Scott Walton (who did very good work at Markethouse Restaurant). The beverage program is highlighted by the beer list, which offers 114 beers on tap. TVs throughout the interior, and one in the outside bar, keep the sports-centric folks happy, but mostly it's a mix-and-mingle, young professional crowd here. 435 N. Michigan Ave., 312-262-5310.
Gather. The 40-seat covered patio behind this Lincoln Square newcomer is pretty and serene, abetted by privacy fencing and young trees, equipped with heaters for chilly nights and fans for sultry ones. Softly glowing oil lamps at each table make it romantic. The kitchen brings an artist's eye to preparations such as hamachi crudo with citrus segments and horizontal smears of citrus sauce, and crispy artichokes alongside a lazy river of artichoke puree. Definitely one for your short list. 4539 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-506-9300.
Little Market Brasserie. Last year's PT at the Talbott is now called Little Market Brasserie, an American-themed restaurant (overseen by Ryan Poli) attached to the Talbott Hotel. The sidewalk cafe out front features plenty of comfortable chairs and umbrella-topped tables, on a quiet stretch of Delaware Place. It's open from breakfast coffee to late-evening nightcaps. 10 E. Delaware Place, 312-640-8141.
The Local Chicago. Plants abound on the living-garden wall along the planters, walls and trellises of The Local's gorgeous sidewalk cafe, a great place to enjoy the all-American comfort-food menu, including the terrific prime meatloaf. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 198 E. Delaware Place, 312-280-8887.
Sumi Robata Bar. Gene Kato's tiny new Japanese restaurant nearly doubles when the outdoor space is available. Beautifully done with wood decking, shielded from the street by a row of arborvitae, the outdoor space offers umbrella-topped and candlelit tables, as well as a serene zen garden with a dancing flame. 702 N. Wells St., 312-988-7864.
For the view
Chicago Cut Steakhouse. It can be tough getting an outdoor table at some venues, but the riverside patio adjacent to this top-level steakhouse is so big, your odds aren't that bad. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 300 N. LaSalle St., 312-329-1800.
Drumbar. You can't get food at Drumbar (though you can eat sumptuously at Pelago Ristorante downstairs, or inexpensively at The Local Chicago across the street), but I include this rooftop cocktail lounge for its comfortable seating, dancing fire pits, glorious Streeterville view and the eye-opening cocktail program overseen by Craig Schoettler (ex-Aviary), which includes a liquid-nitrogen margarita, batched Moscow Mules dispensed from a kegerator and seasonal-flavor slush drinks. 201 E. Delaware Place, 312-943-5000.
Homestead on the Roof. This 80-seat rooftop restaurant by Greg Mohr and Scott Weiner — who also own downstairs Roots Handmade Pizza (through which you access the roof) and adjacent West Town Bakery — is a virtually perfect urban oasis. Dine under the stars (and strung Edison bulbs) at tables that wrap around the 1,000-square-foot garden, whose output finds its way onto chef Chris Curren's menu. Salads are excellent, especially the duck egg with asparagus and peas and the frika grain with hearts of palm, cucumbers and micro-greens, and the bountiful bread basket with various spreads is worth the $6 charge. Fettuccine with rabbit-pork meatballs and nettle pesto is considered a small dish on the menu, but it's plenty satisfying. And if the weather acts up, there's an indoor, air-conditioned space just steps away. 1924 W. Chicago Ave., 773-645-4949.
The J. Parker. Making its debut late last summer, J. Parker is a rooftop space crowning the 12-story Hotel Lincoln, offering dazzling views of Lincoln Park, Lake Michigan and a bit of downtown skyline. The people-watching is almost as good as the view, as the place attracts a dressy crowd. The menu, by Paul Virant (Perennial Virant restaurant is at ground level), offers such light bites as curried deviled eggs with chili oil and french fries served with pickled-ramp aioli, along with slightly more substantial fare. Low-set, cushioned furniture and a few highboy tables see to it that the views are good even from the middle of the space. Arrive early if you want to sit or even ride the elevator; the capacity does max out. 1816 N. Clark St., 312-254-4747.
Little Goat Diner. Stephanie Izard's "other" restaurant recently unveiled its rooftop patio, a second-story perch that offers views of downtown and some of the Randolph-street bustle. There's a small snacks menu for food, or you can get a sandwich at the downstairs bakery. The only catch is that the rooftop is already popular with the special-event crowd, so you might pull up to the restaurant to find the rooftop booked (Sunday, they say, is guaranteed to be open to all, weather permitting). Lunchtime may be your best bet. 820 W. Randolph St., 312-88-3455.
III Forks. This relatively new steakhouse — the only Illinois location of a seven-link chain — has a shiny steel-and-glass rooftop space whose outdoor bar and fireplace draw a good (and sometimes dressed-to-kill) crowd. But though this is a rooftop, the restaurant is surrounded by the tall condos of the Lakeshore East development (east of Michigan Avenue and north of Randolph Street), so you get a rooftop effect (there's a pretty park just below) and a canyon effect simultaneously. If you're going to make an evening of it, I'd suggest ordering appetizers and cocktails on the roof (the fennel-laced lamb meatballs and serrano-spiced chicken flatbread are pretty good), but head downstairs for your steak. 180 N. Field Blvd., 312-938-4303.
The Terrace. The outdoor space adjacent to Shanghai Terrace, in the Peninsula Chicago Hotel, is a courtyard so pretty, so beautifully finished, you're actually disinclined to treat it like a city-view space (though it is, albeit on the fourth floor, so the best views are above) and more inclined to treat it as an elegant courtyard lounge (which it also is). Lunch, dim sum, cocktail and dinner service available. 108 E. Superior St., 312-573-6744.
The Terrace at Trump. Yeah, it's crazy expensive for the bar bites and cocktails. Yes, it can be full of tourists, crowding around the inside bar awaiting their chance at an outside seat. And it galls some people (based on emails I have received) that it's Trump. Nevertheless, the 16th-floor Terrace, adjacent to the outstanding Sixteen restaurant, offers unmatched, close-up views of the Loop skyline, the Wrigley Building, the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. It really is a spectacular venue. 401 N. Wabash Ave., 312-588-8600.
Terzo Piano. Sitting on the Art Institute of Chicago's third floor (which is what terzo piano means), Tony Mantuano's sleek, white-on-white restaurant has an appropriately minimalist outdoor area, shielded from the weather but overlooking Millennium Park and the Michigan Avenue skyline (though for the best views, get up and walk out to the open-air space). A new menu adds some dishes to the all-Italian selection, including malloreddus (ridged, conch-shaped pasta) with braised rabbit, and seasonal specials such as softshell-crab risotto. Open every day for lunch, but dinner is available Thursday nights only. 159 E. Monroe St., 312-443-8650.
The tried and true
Agio Italian Bistro. One of the cutest places anywhere is this charming Palatine Italian. The dark wood and stone-finish look of the interior is more than matched by the roof-topped open-air exterior, landscaped and equipped with glass garage doors and heaters that make seating an option no matter what the weather. Cavatelli and eggplant Parmesan are two of the most reliable dishes on the menu. 64 S. Northwest Highway, Palatine, 847-991-2150.
Bakersfield. An adjunct of the upscale grocery Standard Market across the street, Bakersfield justifiably prides itself on its wood-grilled meats and top-quality produce (sourced across the street, naturally). The outdoor patio, with its fire pits and tables sheltered by massive umbrellas, is one of the nicest outdoor options in the suburbs. 330 E. Ogden Ave., Westmont, 630-568-3615.
Carlucci. Ivy-covered stone walls surround this spacious suburban garden, large enough to support a canopy-covered full bar, massive water fountain and, on certain nights, a music combo. The menu, overseen by chef Jonathan Harootunian, offers excellent pastas amid other Italian staples (I can never resist the linguine, tossed in the recess of a cheese wheel, a Carlucci signature from way back), and Carlucci's happy hour includes a nice selection of $3 and $5 appetizers (available 4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday). 1801 Butterfield Road, Downers Grove, 630-512-0990.
Carriage House: A pretty and spacious sidewalk cafe abuts this Southern charmer, and the people-watching along this stretch of Division Street is never dull. New additions to the menu include a lovely strawberry salad with English-pea creme fraiche, a modern take on hoppin' John that includes nuggets of pork belly, and a sized-for-two lamb-chop entree with grits, pickled favas and mint vinaigrette. Beer selection and cocktails are strong points. Open for lunch or brunch six days (closed Monday). 1700 W. Division St., 773-384-9700.
Chicago Firehouse Restaurant. This South Loop restaurant's backyard patio is softly lit enough to qualify as sultry. The area is bordered by high stone walls and raised beds of uplit trees and shrubs, and most of the tables have umbrellas. Steaks are the big draw here, but the kitchen also puts out a very good roasted chicken, a first-rate crabcake and a hefty signature burger, all of which will save you money vis-a-vis the big beef. On Tuesday nights, "Pinot on the Patio" offers $5 glasses of pinot noir, pinot gris and pinot grigio. 1401 S. Michigan Ave., 312-786-1401.
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse — Oak Brook. Surrounded by tall trees and a flagstone waterfall, equipped with retractable shades, Gibsons' 200-seat patio can seem far, far removed from the heavy traffic nearby and the Oakbrook Center Mall across the street. But that's what you want from an outdoor space, isn't it? 2105 Spring Road, Oak Brook, 630-954-0000.
Greek Islands Lombard. The suburban outpost of a reliable Greektown mainstay offers outdoor comfort via its pergola-shaded, bi-level outdoor space, done in Aegean blue and white. The menu is exactly what you expect — not in and of itself a bad thing — and it's reliable. 300 E. 22nd St., Lombard, 312-932-4545.
Maya Del Sol. The spacious outdoor patio offers propane heaters and gas fireplaces if it's a little cold, colorful blankets if it's even colder and will lend you a pair of sunglasses if it's nice and sunny. Good, solid value-driven menu is highlighted by good ceviches and better margaritas. 144 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, 708-358-9800.
Piccolo Sogno. Still one of the most beautiful outdoor dining options in the city, the restaurant's outdoor space offers privacy fencing, mature landscaping, dramatic lighting and, of course, Tony Priolo's exceptional Italian menu. The only trouble is that, when the weather is nice, nobody wants to eat indoors. 464 N. Halsted St., 312-421-0077.
Red Door. Throughout the history of this space, previously home to Cafe du Midi, Meritage and Duchamp, outdoor dining has always been a draw. And so it remains, now a small-plates concept by chef Troy Graves, with a redesigned (last year) tri-level outdoor area with simple wood seating. 2118 N. Damen Ave., 773-697-7221.
Salsa 17. This lively Mexican restaurant in downtown Arlington Heights doesn't offer alfresco dining per se, but when the weather behaves, the huge windows are thrown open for an open-air effect, which goes nicely with the menu and the very good margaritas. 17 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, 847-590-1122.
Sola. I really like Carol Wallack's tastefully designed interior more than I like dining outside here, but given the natural advantage of tree-lined Byron Street to set with outdoor tables, alfresco is hard to resist, especially at brunch. 3868 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-327-3868.
Tesori. This used to be Rhapsody, but while the restaurant name has changed and there's a new Italian menu in place, the outdoor garden is as inviting as ever, a green oasis in the heart of the Loop. Yes, the occasional "L" car will screech around a nearby turn, but that just emphasizes how unusual a spot this is. 65 E. Adams St., 312-786-9911.
Tokio Pub. A small-plates pub offering Japanese and Latin-influenced small plates (house-made ramen, fish tacos) in an open-air space protected from all but the most wind-driven elements. Attached to Shaw's Crab House, so if you crave more substantial food, you can always stroll in there. A good place for a drink and a bite. 1900 E. Higgins Road, Schaumburg, 847-278-5181.
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