Restaurants scramble to winterize outdoor dining amid COVID-19 restrictions

Sunday, November 15, 2020
Restaurants scramble to winterize outdoor dining amid COVID-19 restrictions
With cooler weather on the way, every restaurant in our region is scrambling to figure out how to stay open by keeping guests outside.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- With cooler weather on the way, every restaurant in our region is scrambling to figure out how to stay open by keeping guests outside, which is no easy task during a typical Chicago winter.

Our Hungry Hound talked to three restaurateurs this week, each trying to plan for winter.

Oven-baked pitas with hummus, charred whole heads of cauliflower and chicken schnitzel sandwiches. The food at Fiya, in Andersonville, reflects what's being served in Tel Aviv these days.

"It's the food that is now being cooked in modern, hip Israeli restaurants," said owner Mindy Friedler.

But with December looming, the owners realized it was time to do something about their patio, so they installed seven plastic bubbles - all of which can be reserved.

"The question with these will be, at some point, it's just going to be too cold," she said.

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They've installed portable heaters inside each one, hoping to draw adventurous customers in for a few extra weeks.

"We're hoping it will give us a little bit longer of a season. We just have to get through a couple months," said Friedler.

Every Wednesday is pizza night at The Duck Inn in Bridgeport. The casual restaurant easily shifts from wood-fired pizza to grilled octopus with microgreens, thanks to Chef Kevin Hickey's experience at the Ritz-Carlton. Right now, he's got a massive tent covering his back patio, giving him 24 more seats.

"Sides all the way around, we keep it open a little more than 50% on both sides and on the front, and then we also have a forced-air heater [which] hooks up to a 100-pound propane tank and forces hot air along the floor, hits the back, comes around. Keeps them pretty cozy," said Hickey.

There are another 12 seats on the uncovered patio.

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Chicago infectious disease doctor Dr. Richard Novak weighs in on whether dining in tents, igloos and greenhouses is safer than eating indoors.

"We're selling blankets. I've never seen Chicagoans handle inclement weather as well as they're handling it these days. Everybody's being a real champ and a real trooper and really supportive," he said.

If that's not enough, his exquisite winter cocktails will also keep you feeling cozy.

Regulars at The Warbler in Lincoln Square have known for months they wouldn't have to go the winter without the restaurant's crispy tempura cauliflower in a ponzu glaze, and they don't necessarily need to get that roasted mushroom and feta agnolotti to-go, because the restaurant's indoor-outdoor patio is part of the building.

"It's certainly worked out in our favor, to have a permanent structure that will keep people comfortable outside for as long as possible," said owner David Breo. "We have eight 40,000-watt heaters that are electric-fed in the roof, which allow us to control the temperature depending on the outside. But if one table is too hot, we can take that down; if one table is too cold, we can take that up."

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The capacity is normally 140, but now it'll be just 30. You may even find yourself having to remove extra layers, depending on how close you're sitting to a heater. But know that your order of sweet potato falafel, set over the sage hummus with a bright tahini vinaigrette is one more reason to keep the neighborhood favorite afloat this winter.

"It'll be enough to keep us below that water line so we can continue to go forward," said Breo.

The owners at Fiya and The Duck Inn admit those structures are just temporary. You can't really be outside or under a tent or in a pod when it's 20 degrees outside. But the permanent setup at The Warbler is just that - permanent - and it's not going anywhere all winter.

Remember, it's always best to either call ahead or make a reservation online before arriving since those outdoor seats are limited. There is also usually a time limit associated with those reservations.


5149 N. Clark St.


The Duck Inn

2701 S. Eleanor St.


The Warbler

4535 N. Lincoln Ave.


Tre Kronor

3258 W Foster Ave