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Mayor wants designs for promoting winter outdoor dining

It’s part of Lightfoot’s plan to support local restaurants if the pandemic still constrains operations when cold weather arrives.

A woman all bundled up walks down Wabash Ave. in The Loop,
Dining al fresco, anyone? Mayor Lori Lightfoot hopes that when winter hits, Chicagoans will still be open to eating outdoors to support restaurants in the pandemic.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Deep-dish pizza in a deep freeze? Pulled pork for a polar vortex? Or maybe saganaki in a snowstorm?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to introduce Chicagoans to the pleasures of winter outdoor dining. Mindful that COVID-19’s hold on the city might rule out crowded restaurant dining rooms when cold weather hits, Lightfoot announced a design competition Tuesday for ways the whole experience can be taken outside, windchills be damned.

“We are asking our community members to come together and think creatively about how we can make outdoor dining feasible in the winter,” Lightfoot said.

So the city has partnered with the design firm IDEO, the Illinois Restaurant Association and BMO Harris Bank, which is putting up a $5,000 prize for winners in each of three design categories. Two envision an outdoor structure, freestanding or attached to a building, to provide some shelter. The third category is bravely labeled “cultural shifts making winter dining more appealing.”

Entries for the Winter Design Challenge can be submitted through Sept. 7 at IDEO’s website and winners will be announced in mid-September after review by a panel of community members and restaurateurs.

Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for economic development, said the contest seeks to start with ideas for domes or tents and go deeper. “Part of this is behavioral and cultural,” he said.

He said Scandinavian cities and places such as Toronto have embraced winter outdoor dining. Will Chicagoans do it so restaurants can get around indoor capacity limits that might still apply because of the pandemic?

“There has been a tremendous amount of behavioral change because of the pandemic,” Mayekar said. “It’s why Chicago has one of the most open economies of any big city in the country.”

Asked if the contest is an admission that COVID-19 is sticking around, Mayekar cited increasing caseloads in Illinois and around the U.S. “We need to plan that the current status quo may be with us for many months,” he said.

Mayekar said in addition to BMO Harris’ funds, other grants may support construction of winning designs.

Chicago restaurants currently can operate indoor dining at 25% of normal capacity. Sam Toia, CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, praised Lightfoot for assisting his industry, an early victim of COVID-19. “LA and New York do not have indoor dining. We have the 25%,” Toia said.

“We ought to think outside the box” to keep restaurants viable, he said, citing the mayor’s support for closing some thoroughfares to expand outdoor restaurant seating. “Obviously, we’re stilling waiting for a vaccine or effective treatment, but that doesn’t seem to be around the corner yet,” Toia said.

Eric Smith, vice chair at BMO Harris, said, “We know that Chicago residents are innovative and forward-thinking, and we look forward to seeing their ideas for supporting our restaurants and bars, and I hope that the solutions that come out of the Winter Design Challenge will remain long after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.”