From RVs to boxcars: 6 unique outdoor dining experiences in the suburbs

  • Owner Mike Okun launched "Camp Find-A-Way" outside Chatterbox of Long Grove to offer customers a private dining experience with no exposure to servers or other guests.

    Owner Mike Okun launched "Camp Find-A-Way" outside Chatterbox of Long Grove to offer customers a private dining experience with no exposure to servers or other guests. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Features Bar & Grill is trying out a new dining concept using three boxcars stationed along Chicago Avenue in downtown Naperville.

    Features Bar & Grill is trying out a new dining concept using three boxcars stationed along Chicago Avenue in downtown Naperville. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/14/2021 10:45 AM

During a statewide stay-at-home order last spring, Michael Okun and his wife would order carryout from their favorite restaurants, park their RV outside and use the camper as a makeshift dining car.

Even in to-go containers, the food was fresh and warm. The RV was comfortable. And most importantly, Okun said, they felt safe from possible COVID-19 exposure.

 

Months later, those experiences became the basis for a new dining concept offered at their bar and restaurant, Chatterbox of Long Grove. "Camp Find-A-Way" consists of five RVs parked outside the establishment, Okun said, allowing guests to enjoy a meal in their own sanitized space with heating and ventilation systems and no direct contact with servers or other customers.

With the winter months looming as another indoor dining ban took effect this fall, several suburban restaurants began developing creative ways to continue serving customers and keep their employees working. While many put up large, heated tents, some have built out igloo-like domes or other individualized structures designed to withstand the winter elements.

Here are six establishments that have gone to great lengths to offer unique dining experiences outside their usual walls:

Chatterbox of Long Grove has set up "Camp Find-A-Way" in the parking lot for customers to eat inside a parked RV and use walkie-talkies to order food.
Chatterbox of Long Grove has set up "Camp Find-A-Way" in the parking lot for customers to eat inside a parked RV and use walkie-talkies to order food. - John Starks | Staff Photographer
Chatterbox of Long Grove

The five RVs stationed outside Chatterbox are on loan through a deal with Rockford-based dealership Sunny Island RV, Okun said.

For a $50 "camp site" fee, customers can rent an RV for 90 minutes, order their meals through a walkie-talkie and have their food delivered in to-go containers at the door. One camper can seat up to six people, while the others allow four to five people, he said.

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Each RV is equipped with two air purification and filtration systems, as well as an Amazon Alexa device for entertainment purposes.

Five RVs are stationed outside Chatterbox of Long Grove, allowing customers to rent a space to enjoy a private meal.
Five RVs are stationed outside Chatterbox of Long Grove, allowing customers to rent a space to enjoy a private meal. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Once customers are seated, nobody outside their party is allowed inside, including servers, he said. When they are finished, staff members air out the camper and sanitize the entire space for the next party.

Info: Chatterbox of Long Grove is at 330 Old McHenry Road. To make reservations, call (847) 602-2169 or visit www.chatterboxlonggrove.com.

Features, Naperville

Fearing his downtown Naperville restaurant was nearing its breaking point, Riff Menza embraced a pilot project proposed by city and community partners.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Three bright red boxcars transformed into dining cars are now stationed outside Features Bar & Grill, each featuring doors, windows, and heating and ventilation systems that circulate air while keeping temperatures at a comfortable level, city officials said.

Features Bar & Grill is trying out a new dining concept using three boxcars stationed along Chicago Avenue in downtown Naperville.
Features Bar & Grill is trying out a new dining concept using three boxcars stationed along Chicago Avenue in downtown Naperville. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

One railcar has two booths and a table, each of which can seat four to five people. The second has three tables that can seat four each and two more tables that can seat two each. The third, a locomotive bar car, includes a counter, Menza said.

Menza spent about $7,000 to buy and outfit each boxcar to meet state requirements for outdoor dining, city officials said. The work was completed by Naperville's public works department and private contractors.

Info: Features Bar & Grill is at 14 Chicago Ave., Naperville, www.featuresbarandgrill.net. To make reservations, call (630) 416-3310.

The Assembly, Hoffman Estates

Gary and Jean Taylor spent hours one day scouring local stores for prefabricated shed kits this past fall.

Within weeks, they had obtained a permit from Hoffman Estates, garnered help from volunteers and built out six heated and insulated dining huts outside their restaurant, The Assembly.

The Assembly in Hoffman Estates has constructed six dining huts outside the restaurant where guests can enjoy a private meal.
The Assembly in Hoffman Estates has constructed six dining huts outside the restaurant where guests can enjoy a private meal. - Courtesy of Gary and Jean Taylor

The structures, which seat four to six people, are outfitted with an electric fireplace heater and a sliding window where servers take orders and deliver food to guests. The huts are aired out and sanitized after each party leaves.

There's a 90-minute time limit but no cost to rent a dining hut, the Taylors said.

Info: The Assembly, American Bar & Cafe is at 2570 Hassell Road, Hoffman Estates, www.assembly-bar.com. To make reservations, call (847) 843-3993.

Gianni's Cafe, Kildeer and Palatine

An igloo village has been constructed outside the two suburban locations of Gianni's Cafe, offering heated and sanitized alternative dining experiences.

The Kildeer restaurant has seven igloos that seat up to eight people, according to the Gianni's website. The Palatine location has three igloos of the same size, as well as six private dining greenhouses that seat up to four people.

Gianni's Cafe in Kildeer has created an igloo village to extend its winter dining season. Similar heated structures, along with greenhouses, are also stationed outside the restaurant's Palatine location.
Gianni's Cafe in Kildeer has created an igloo village to extend its winter dining season. Similar heated structures, along with greenhouses, are also stationed outside the restaurant's Palatine location. - Courtesy of Gianni's Cafe

Each structure includes an air purifier with an Ultra Violent C light to kill viruses, as well as a 10,000 BTU vent-free heater, the site says. Customers will be provided an LED lantern and instructed to turn it on to get their server's attention.

Igloos have a $50 rental fee Fridays through Sundays and a $25 fee on other weeknights. Greenhouses cost $15 during the week and $25 Friday through Sunday. All structures have a two-hour time limit.

Info: Locations are at 20505 Rand Road, Kildeer, (847) 550-8872, and 18 W. Station St., Palatine, (847) 991-1416, www.gianniscafe.com.

Bien Trucha, Geneva

Comfort and ambience were top of mind when Bien Trucha operators created a set of heated geometric dining pods with solid wood frames.

Bien Trucha in Geneva built several geometric dining pods with sturdy wood frames to withstand the winter elements.
Bien Trucha in Geneva built several geometric dining pods with sturdy wood frames to withstand the winter elements. - Courtesy of Bien Trucha

The transparent structures are the restaurant group's latest strategy for adapting and adhering to the state's COVID-19 restrictions, Chief Business Officer Julio Cano said.

They are strong enough to withstand winter weather and large enough to seat eight people at a picnic table, several of which were purchased this summer when the downtown Geneva restaurant expanded its back patio, he said. A small greenhouse located toward the front of the property can seat up to four customers.

Pods are available in 90-minute increments and will be ventilated and sanitized between each use, officials said. Customers are encouraged to dress warmly and bring a blanket.

Info: Bien Trucha is at 410 W. State St., Geneva. To make reservations, call (630) 232-2665 or visit www.bientrucha.com/outdoor-dome-experience.

Hideaway, Hoffman Estates

With live music, a variety of beverages and an entirely outdoor concept, the Hideaway Brew Garden & Bar was a popular destination for customers looking for safe and socially distanced fun from June through October.

The Hideaway Brew Garden & Bar has opened a winter experience in a heated, open-air warehouse in the NOW Arena parking lot. The Hoffman Estates establishment previously had an outdoor-only concept through the summer but is now hosting events and live music in the 10,000-square-foot rustic space.
The Hideaway Brew Garden & Bar has opened a winter experience in a heated, open-air warehouse in the NOW Arena parking lot. The Hoffman Estates establishment previously had an outdoor-only concept through the summer but is now hosting events and live music in the 10,000-square-foot rustic space. - Courtesy of Ben Gibbs

Run by the NOW Arena, the establishment first opened in 2019 and was refined this past summer with a "huge emphasis on safety," General Manager Ben Gibbs said. As the weather got colder, operators decided to move the concept into a 10,000-square-foot warehouse typically used to store vehicles and equipment in the arena parking lot.

The Hideaway launched its Winter Refuge Edition at the end of November in the structure, which was converted into a rustic, open-air venue with heating and plenty of space, Gibbs said. Not only has the establishment supported NOW Arena operations, but it has also kept staff members working, he said.

Three vintage campers with patio space and fire pits also are stationed on the property for groups looking to rent a private space. The rental fee starts at $100.

Info: Hideaway Brew Garden & Bar is at 5333 Prairie Stone Parkway, Hoffman Estates, in the NOW Arena's east parking lot. To make table reservations, visit www.hideawaybrewgarden.com. To rent a camper, email HideawayBrewGarden@gmail.com.

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