Parklets, tents, food alleys: Suburbs continue expanded outdoor dining this year
Once upon a time -- back in 2019 -- outdoor dining in suburban towns meant sipping your soup on a restaurant's patio or huddling over a tiny two-top on a sidewalk out front.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and town officials and businesses moved with warp speed to figure out ways to move things outside, so their restaurants and pubs could survive state restrictions that shut down or limited indoor dining.
And the efforts worked so well, many are setting up al fresco dining areas again, even as restrictions have loosened.
"It ended up being great with all the different programming that went on," said Beth Walker, executive director of Batavia MainStreet, where the city closed off North River Street downtown.
The street is a brick-paved woonerf where pedestrians usually share the road with vehicles. But it was blocked off much of the summer and fall, and the city put out picnic tables. Some nearby restaurants offered table service on weekends. Placards were put out with QR codes for restaurants, so people could place orders for pickup.
Entertainment will be offered again, as Sidecar Supper Club (formerly River's Edge Pub) plans to have live music on Tuesday nights, and Bar Evolution will offer karaoke on Wednesday nights.
Trivia Thursday is returning, too, Walker said. The contest -- run by Sidecar Supper Club -- featured as many as 30 teams last summer, filling the street.
"It was one of the more charming things last year," Walker said.
The city has also closed off a block of South Water Street, on the western side of the downtown. That area didn't have any programming last year, but MainStreet is working on that this year.
And Batavia is not alone. Other suburbs that are setting aside spaces include Arlington Heights, Wheaton and Cary.
Arlington Alfresco, on Vail and Campbell streets, opened in March. Barricades are set up down the center of the streets for pedestrians to pass through.
Alfresco Alley returned April 1 to downtown Cary. Spring Street from West Main Street to Cary Street is closed. There are lights, planter boxes and picnic tables.
In Wheaton, the Hale Street Tents plan to reopen May 1, according to the Downtown Wheaton Association. Restaurants have designated areas in the tents. It was so popular last year, the association's executive director, Elle Withall, recommends you make reservations with the restaurants. There will be live music on weekends, Withall said.
Marissa Amoni, manager of Aurora Downtown, said businesses have several options to offer outdoor dining. "This year we have had time to work on it more," she said. "It will be a little more strategic this year."
The city is again closing off Pinney Street, which is one block north of West New York Street, behind Gillerson's Grubbery. "It became kind of a cool area," Amoni said, with concerts and outdoor movies.
Aurora Downtown also gave away a four-seasons booth; you will find it at Chupacabra Puerto Rican Kitchen on North Broadway.
And Aurora will be using "parklets" again -- small areas where on-street parking spaces have been blocked off and tables set up. One is currently under construction for the Treadwell coffeehouse on Downers Place.
Parklets in Naperville will be prettier this year, unlike last year, when areas were quickly blocked off by Jersey barriers and other utilitarian barricades. The spaces this year will feature overhead string lighting and flower planters, and will be cordoned off by brick columns and black metal fencing. As of April 14, two restaurants -- Quigley's Irish Pub and Allegory -- had gotten city permits to have parklets.
Downers Grove is also allowing parklets this year; locations are still being worked out, according to the Downtown Downers Grove Management Corp.
A different type of outdoor dining is changing in Aurora this year.
Instead of an annual food truck festival, there will be a monthly food truck food court the first Friday of the month, through December.
The food trucks will be parked at Water Street Square, the parking lot across from City Hall on Downer Place.
The trucks will complement the First Fridays cultural events held throughout the downtown.
"Although we've canceled the festival this year, food vendors will still be a mainstay at downtown events. We're excited to be able to grow First Fridays in this way and to be able to provide a variety of options, including outdoor dining opening soon at downtown restaurants," Amoni said.