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Winter Dining Challenge’s winning ideas: cabins, blocks and heated tables in Chicago

In addition to the contest outcome, Mayor Lightfoot also announced a new initiative between the Illinois Restaurant Association and DoorDash to provide financial support to Chicago restaurants to help cover the costs of winterizing their outdoor dining areas.

People dine on the patio at Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House at 1024 N Rush Street. Chicago restaurants may soon have options to continue al fresco dining into the winter months, thanks to the winning entries in a design contest to make that possible.
People dine on the patio at Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House at 1024 N Rush Street. Chicago restaurants may soon have options to continue al fresco dining into the winter months, thanks to the winning entries in a design contest to make that possible.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Winter is coming to Chicago, and so too, are outdoor dining options.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot today announced the three winners of the Winter Dining Challenge, a contest that sought innovative concepts for dining outdoors as the cold weather arrives.

Nearly 650 submissions were received during the two-week contest period and the winners were selected by a team of architects, designers, chefs, restaurateurs and servers.

The winners, who each will receive a $5,000 prize, are:

— Amy Young, ASD | SKY, Cozy Cabins: Small modular, adjoining “cabins” that fit within the footprint of a standard parking space. “Our modular design was inspired by ice fishing huts and warm, glowing cabins,” Young wrote of her concept.

Amy Young’s “Cozy Cabins” for outdoor winter dining.
Amy Young’s “Cozy Cabins” for outdoor winter dining.
Artist’s rendering| ASD/SKY

—Neil Reindel, Block Party: A flexible approach to outdoor dining that is adaptable and easy to implement for many different sites and street configurations. “Blocks can see different arrangements and stacks. A single block module holds two people, and parties can increase as blocks are grouped together,” Reindel wrote of his concept.

Neil Reindel’s outdoor Block Party dining concept.
Neil Reindel’s outdoor Block Party dining concept.
Artist’s rendering/Neil Reindel

— Ellie Henderson, Heated Tables: Modify the Japanese Kotatsu, an economical way to keep warm and cozy in cold months. “Common in Japan, almost every household has a Kotatsu or heated table. It is known as an economical way to keep warm. Usually the Kotatsu table is used indoors, but has been known to be modified for outdoor use,” Henderson wrote of her concept.

Ellie Henderson’s “Heated Tables” outdoor dining concept.
Ellie Henderson’s “Heated Tables” outdoor dining concept.
Artist’s rendering/Ellie Henderson

Lightfoot praised the “tremendous innovation and creativity” that produced the winning ideas. Some of the entries even came from other countries and borrowed from ideas pioneered outside the U.S., she said. “We wanted to do something creative to think about how we can support our restaurants and our bars because, as we all know, in Chicago, it gets cold,” the mayor told an unrelated news conference at the Cultural Center.

In addition to the contest outcome, Lightfoot also announced a new initiative between the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) and DoorDash to provide $500,000 in grant money for Chicago restaurants to help cover the costs of winterizing their outdoor dining areas.

Restaurants can apply to receive a $5,000 grant to defray winterization expenses such as the cost of heating equipment and additional safety materials to improve indoor dining, upgrades for air filtration systems and bulk orders of blankets for patrons, Thursday’s announcement stated. The application process — open to restaurants located in Chicago with three or fewer locations operating currently, 50 employees or fewer in 2019, and $3 million or less in 2019 annual revenue per store — begins Oct. 16. Recipients of the grants will be notified in December.

Lightfoot said Chicago is the “culinary capital of the world for a reason.” The city showcases a smorgasbord of “high-end and neighborhood places” that offer a “range of culinary experiences” and prices. But the restaurant industry has been “devastated” by the coronavirus pandemic, threatening to destroy the lifeblood of Chicago neighborhoods.

“Restaurants not only entertain us. They employ a lot of people. They are critical, not just to the employees in the individual restaurants themselves. But think about the supply chain that goes into supporting the restaurant industry in our city. It’s vital that we do everything that we can to uplift them to give them a fighting chance,” the mayor said.

The IRA will now begin the process of selecting local construction firms/design firms to make the winning outdoor dining concepts a reality. Prototypes will be built and tested at various local restaurants, chosen by the IRA, in the weeks ahead. Building funds have been allocated by BMO Harris Bank.

Contributing: Fran Spielman