Chicagoans’ ideas for solving the winter dining dilemma are...creative [Updated]

Jacob Dean and Aimee Levitt
·3 mins read
Outdoor greenhouse dining in Amsterdam, May 2020
Outdoor greenhouse dining in Amsterdam, May 2020

Update, October 9, 2020: And we have some winners! Yesterday the city of Chicago announced that it had selected three designs from its Winter Dining Challenge contest to move on to the prototype phase. They are:

  • “Cozy Cabins” with radiant floor heating, tiny enough to fit into a parking space, created by ASD | SKY, a design firm in Atlanta,

  • “Block Party,” a series of modular cubes that can be assembled into larger dining areas, like giant Legos, with radiant heating mesh in the floors, designed by Neil Reindell and Flo Mettetal, two urban planners, and

  • “Heated Tables,” modified Japanese kotatsu tables with the heating element built in and blankets to drape over diners’ laps, proposed by Ellie Henderson, a graphic designer

Each of the winners will receive $5,000.

The city also announced yesterday that it’s intituting a $500,000 grant program to help restaurants winterize their outdoor spaces. But when Eater Chicago asked chefs and restaurant owners how they felt about all of this, many said they were unimpressed and would rather have tax breaks and have the city make some sort of deal with the utility companies to give them a break on heating costs. They were also concerned about servers and bussers, who would have to brave the elements to get from the kitchen to the cozy cabins and modular blocks.

“Maybe at some point the harshness of a Chicago winter cannot be avoided and I worry about workers out in the elements,” one told Eater. Another was more blunt: “It’s a complicated issue, obviously, but holding a fun contest pitting people against each other again is not the solution.”

Original post, September 18, 2020: COVID-19 has presented many yet unanswered questions, and one of the most pressing is: what’s going to happen to outdoor dining during the winter? Unfortunately, nobody really knows, including our own elected leaders. It’s for that reason that the city of Chicago announced a contest soliciting solutions from the public, and now, after receiving more than 640 submissions, we can say with certainty that people... got a little creative.

As reported by Eater Chicago, responses ranged from converting old CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) buses and trains into ersatz diners, to doing in-car dining using carhops (like at old-school drive-ins), to using pods, igloos, and other forms of temporary shelter. My personal favorite is a bubble that creator Hollister Schneider named “Hot Beans.”

Perhaps the best idea so far seems to be using modular greenhouses:

“For the city’s contest, the idea that generated the most positive feedback on IDEO’s page is called “Slide & Dine.” These are described as modular greenhouses with their own heating and ventilation systems and sliding doors. They would be placed in parking lots and streets. The system is also ADA compliant, according to the applicant.

I only lived in Chicago for one year, folks, but lemme tell you, this is not a small problem. Even during the relatively mild winter I experienced there were still multiple days when it dropped to -15° Fahrenheit, and the wind whipping off of Lake Michigan was enough to make me feel like poor Sam McGee. For restaurants to survive the winter—and particularly a Midwestern one—they’re going to need creative solutions. If you’re curious about what people have come up with, visit this site for the full range of current suggestions.