Where are Chicago’s outdoor patios? | WBEZ
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Where are Chicago’s outdoor patios?

You might think nothing’s as straightforward as enjoying good eats in the sunshine or beer under the stars, but as we’ve shown in several posts on the location of sidewalk cafes, there are complex regulations and touchy politics involved in the city’s al fresco scene.

We won’t be serving so much debate this time, though; instead, we’re more in clarification mode. Some commenters were confused by the difference between sidewalk cafes and patios. We’re clearing that up right now, and we’ll be throwing in a handy map of last season’s patio locations, to boot.

One likely source of confusion is the fact that waiters often ask patrons to “dine on the patio,” but then direct people to seats on the sidewalk. Regardless, there is a difference and it’s one that matters.

In Chicago, when you dine at a sidewalk cafe, you’re dining on public property (the sidewalk), but patios are located on private property. Patios allow restaurants and taverns to better control the outdoor dining experience. They can also use space that would otherwise go to waste: rooftops, backyards or areas that abut parking lots. The sidewalk cafes? Yes, they can be customized, but only so much.

So where are they?

After breaking down city data, we learned that in 2012, there were 593 active patio licenses, 412 of which operated in the summer.

That means there are far fewer patios than sidewalk cafes (again, here’s the map for the latter), but patios are (slightly) more evenly distributed across the city. The South Side, for example, has almost no sidewalk cafes, but it has slightly more patios, many of which are within closed areas. There’s a cluster of patios at five businesses at 11th Street between Pulaski Road and Kedzie Avenue. There’s a similar story to tell on the city’s Northwest Side.

Chicago ordinances govern both patios and cafes, specifically their hours and seasons of operation. However, when it comes to patios, the regulations seem to only apply if the business is serving alcohol.

There’s a reason for that, but prepare yourself for the logic. According to Jennifer Lipford, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, city liquor licenses apply only to enclosed spaces, but the patio license is effectively an add-on. In other words, any business that serves booze must pay nearly $2,000 every two years to serve alcohol to their patrons during nice weather.

Which maybe explains why the patio license was formerly called a beer garden license. Today the license restricts hours of operation, requiring establishments to close patios at 11 p.m. on weekdays and 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturdays. Unlike sidewalk cafes, there’s no limit on which seasons a patio can be open, though there are probably few Chicagoans willing to dine outdoors in January.

And what if a business doesn’t serve alcohol? In those cases, there's no required license and patrons are free to dine on a patio as late as they want, so long as they remain quiet and follow local nuisance laws. This booze-free arrangement is available at diners and hot dog restaurants that have picnic tables near their parking lots, but there are not many businesses open that late.

One notable exception: Wiener Circle in Wrigleyville.

Hot dogs under the stars, Chicago? 

Chicago's outside dining and drinking spots in 2012
(Source: Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, data.cityofchicago.org)
Outdoor Patio Licenses in 2012Sidewalk cafe permits in 2012

Elliott Ramos is a data reporter and web producer for WBEZ. Follow him at @ChicagoEl

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