8 ways suburban restaurants responded to the pandemic over the past year
Nearly a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many suburban restaurant owners to rethink the means by which they accomplish their mission.
With indoor dining banned in mid-March of last year -- and again for a time this fall -- many dining spots trumpeted their takeout and bolstered their delivery options.
Others embraced the outdoors in distinctive ways or turned to the internet to accommodate their most loyal customers.
Regardless of how they went about it, suburban restaurant owners demonstrated resourcefulness and creativity in the ways they kept diners fed over the past year.
The Vine Martini and Wine Bar in Grayslake offered different cocktails to go during the pandemic.
- Courtesy of The Wine Martini and Wine Bar
Dinner and drinks to go
In the wake of restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, many suburban restaurants quickly pivoted to takeout, which often included online ordering and payment and curbside pickup.
Embracing the outdoors
When outdoor dining proved a safer alternative to dining indoors, owners opened their patios. Restaurants that lacked dedicated outdoor seating improvised and turned sidewalks and parking lots into dining spots. Adding tents and heaters meant many continued to serve customers through October.
Some municipalities, including Arlington Heights, accommodated restaurant owners by closing off streets to allow for expanded outdoor seating.
When restaurants were allowed to reopen their indoor dining rooms last June, Arnie Krause, co-owner and operator of The Claim Company in Northbrook, had his employees install partitions between booths to help keep diners safe.
- Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
Safety measures and social distancing
Last summer, when they received permission to reopen for limited indoor dining, restaurant owners got busy making their dining rooms safe for patrons. For the Claim Company in Northbrook and Vernon Hills, that meant installing partitions between booths, rearranging seating to allow for more physical distancing, installing sanitizing stations, and requiring employees and customers to wear face coverings.
The Clubhouse in Oak Brook encouraged diners to access the menu via their cellphones.
Feature's Bar & Grill in Naperville devised an innovative way of accommodating outdoor diners this winter by re-imagining boxcars into dining rooms.
- John Starks | Staff Photographer
When temperatures dipped, restaurant owners established alternative ways to keep patrons separate and safe. Chatterbox of Long Grove introduced "Camp-Find-A-Way" where patrons enjoyed meals inside one of five RVs parked outside the restaurant.
Features Bar & Grill in Naperville transformed three boxcars into individual dining rooms complete with doors, windows, and heating and ventilation systems. The Assembly in Hoffman Estates built insulated dining huts, while other spots constructed igloos.
Perry's Steakhouse and Grille offered a complete Thanksgiving dinner to-go in 2020.
- Courtesy of Perry's Steakhouse and Grille
Unable to host Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day dinners, suburban dining spots created multicourse options for patrons to purchase and serve at their own homes. Look for some restaurants to offer similar options for the upcoming Passover, Easter and Mother's Day celebrations.
When the pandemic made large-group specialty dinners impossible, some suburban restaurants -- including Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook -- migrated online to host virtual events. Among them were multicourse dinners that included question-and-answer sessions with the chefs.
Some restaurants added a bit of whimsy. Lynfred Winery -- with locations in Roselle, Wheaton and Wheeling -- offered kits pairing its wines with potato chips and candy and hosted a Zoom murder mystery that included a virtual toast.
Niños Fresh Mexican Kitchen inside Catch 35 in Naperville offers dishes such as ninos quesabirrias for carryout or delivery.
- Courtesy of Catch 35
To weather the pandemic, some restaurants established "ghost kitchens," offering a second, entirely different menu. For example, Shaw's Crab House in Schaumburg introduced the Indian takeout kitchen Padma's Curry Leaf, while Naperville's Catch 35 added Nino's Fresh Mexican Kitchen and Table At Crate in Oak Brook added Chef Bill Kim's Ramen Bar. The idea was to diversify in an attempt to entice new customers and generate revenue.
Chef Bill Kim's Ramen Bar opened recently inside Table At Crate in Oak Brook as a delivery and carryout pop-up serving ramen and dumplings.
- Courtesy of Connor Rudny
Some restaurants reached out to patrons by offering online cooking classes. Weber Grill in Lombard and Schaumburg introduced a grill academy last summer that attracted aspiring grillmasters from as far away as the West Coast. And earlier this year, fans of Italian food learned to make signature dishes online courtesy of Mychael Bonner, chef at Saranello's in Wheeling.