False spring has arrived in Chicago, and that means it’s time to put on those shorts, fire up the backyard grill and hang out on sidewalk cafes.
Technically, for customers who can stand the cold, sidewalk cafe season has been every season since May 2, 2019, when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel allowed the city’s food establishments to do business on sidewalks year-round through his small business reforms package. Before then, businesses could only operate sidewalk cafes from March 1 to Dec. 1.
Restaurants, bars and coffee shops must apply for these permits every year through the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP). Of the 188 operational permits, one out of five belongs to a business on North Wells Street, North Clark Street, North Division Street or North Milwaukee Avenue, according to a WBEZ analysis of the data.
The 42nd Ward, which includes most of downtown and River North, has the highest number of sidewalk cafe permits. The second-highest permit-holding ward is the 27th Ward, which stretches from Greektown to East Garfield Park, with 24 sidewalk cafe permits.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the BACP also made it cheaper and faster to obtain a sidewalk cafe permit. They slashed the permit application fee by 75%, expedited the issuance process and allowed restaurants to extend their sidewalk permits to neighboring properties.
Businesses can also apply for the city’s expanded outdoor dining program, which allows retail food establishments to temporarily expand into the public way and other private property, like parking lots, for outdoor dining and drinking.
Much like sidewalk cafe permits, these special outdoor dining permits are also concentrated on the North Side. However, the 29th Ward on the Far West Side holds the third-highest number, with 10 permits along North Harlem Avenue, West Chicago Avenue and West Madison Street.
So put on those shorts, enjoy the (potentially short-lived) sunshine this weekend and grab a bite outside.
Jane Vaughan contributed to this report.
Charmaine Runes is WBEZ’s data/visuals reporter. Follow her @maerunes. Jane Vaughan is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and contributed Freedom of Information Act research to this story as part of a Media Law & Government Transparency Practicum. Follow her @jvaughan124.