Best outdoor dining and restaurants in Chicago
Get in gear for alfresco season with our picks for the best patios, gardens and sidewalk cafés in town.
Thu May 16 2013
Photograph: Martha Williams
One beautiful day in Chicago can make up for a month of brutal winter. At least that's what we tell ourselves. So take advantage of summer by scoping out the gardens, decks, patios and even a couple rooftops, all in our guide to the best outdoor dining restaurants in Chicago.
Michael Kornick and David Morton (DMK Burger Bar, Fish Bar) teamed with chef Zoe Schor (L.A.’s Bouchon and Craft) for this hybrid cocktail bar–restaurant. The room is lovely, and so is the food: Schor’s deep-fried black-eyed peas are the perfect drinking snack, and her light touch with steak (dressed in nothing more than brown butter), salads and even doughnuts makes sense with the food-friendly cocktails coming from behind the bar. The adorable back patio is straight out of a CB2 catalog, complete with an astroturf lawn, ping-pong tables and a grill.
What’s not to like about this Andersonville trattoria? It’s cute, it’s bustling, service is helpful, and the food borders between good and great. In warm weather, seek out the secluded back patio, where sprouting vegetables and herbs enhance the rustic, seasonal fare. If a glass of Prosecco doesn’t cool you down, there’s a bubbling fountain near the ivy-covered coach house.
Bang Bang Pie Shop
They say the pie is the thing at this instantly beloved Logan Square shop. And it's true: The pie's terrific. But don't overlook the coffee (Bang Bang roasts its own), the insane biscuits (with a spread of housemade jams and butters) or the huge yard, strung with lights and filled with picnic tables and lush greenery.
With a name that translates as “countryside bistro,” this restaurant is so warm and inviting we could stay all night. Ingredients are fresh and meld into French bistro classics with unforgettable flavors. There isn’t a bad thing on the menu, but if we had to limit ourselves, we’d go with onion soup, mussels steamed in Belgian ale, roasted chicken and pan-seared hanger steak flanked by amazing frites. Oh, and if you can snag a table on the romantic back patio, you have the makings of a perfect summer night.
The crowds are steady at this cute Italian spot, but are they coming for the expansive patio, the kind service or the food? It could be all three, but most likely it's the first two. The food here—straightforward pastas and salads, mostly—is so inoffensive and unremarkable that it becomes an afterthought. It doesn't disappoint, nor does it titillate (though the housemade pappardelle comes close)—it's just there, sustenance to help you get through a few bottles of wine and a good conversation.
If it’s a scene you’re after, you’re in the wrong place. The only scene at Chez Joël is an antiscene: Nobody’s dressed to impress you (not that they don’t look nice), and the music is straight from the iPod of Gérard Depardieu. Joël’s brick-laid courtyard is a respite from all that, a quiet spot where the pâtés are creamy, the Champagne is cold, and you’ll never have to worry about spilling a cosmo on a maxidress.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse
This riverside restaurant has all the trappings of a classic, alongside some modern-day amenities like an iPad wine list. If you’re looking for an alfresco steakhouse experience, it’s tough to beat a seat on Chicago Cut's expansive patio.
Scott Harris’s Taylor Street spot combines elements of the Purple Pig (a menu full of schmears and charcuterie) with the Italian sensibilities of his Mia Francesca’s chain. There are a few fumbles on the menu, but mostly the dishes succeed due to their sheer decadence. Harris's best move: turning the roof into a cozy, 45-seat patio.
This Mexican mainstay has an amazing back patio; potent and fruity margaritas; sweet-as-pie servers; and decent dishes for a nice price. Favorites include tilapia tacos, inky black beans with perfect white rice, plantains with crispy edges and the giant red snapper with crispy coating. The potato tacos keep vegetarians happy, as does the ever-present owner, José, who’s quick to pour tequila shots for newcomers and old friends.
Wicker Park’s Division Street likely won’t be mistaken for bella Italia, except maybe the two-storefront stretch occupied by Rome native Letizia Sorano and son Fabio’s restaurant and adjacent Letizia’s Bakery. Here, the alfresco options are twofold: Head to the quiet, spacious rear patio to dine on rustic Italian fare amid leafy plants and a fountain, or take in the lively street scene out front. Thoughtful touches such as blankets on cooler nights, as well as a perfectly attentive waitstaff, begin to justify menu prices that seem a bit high. But if you’re still bothered, just imagine yourself on a Roman holiday traveling against a weak dollar.
Gene's Sausage Shop & Delicatessen
This European-style Lincoln Square grocery store is a prime spot to pick up housemade sausages and imported bottled beers. The old Meyer Delicatessen sign remains out front, but after a serious build-out, this two-story European-style grocery is now one of the city’s most impressive specialty groceries, not to mention an incomparable sausage purveyor. In summer, those brats are also available from “Gene's Bier Garden” on the third-floor roof, where long picnic tables and four taps add to the German beer-garden setting.
Never tried Costa Rican food? This spot is simple, authentic, cheap, supercasual, friendly—and all about the outdoor patio. Start with the hearts of palm salad—tangy stalks on a bed of shredded cabbage tossed in a lime vinaigrette, along with radishes, cilantro, cucumber, pickled beets and ripe avocado. Make it a meal by adding the steak-and-beans “pepito” sandwich and sweet plantains. Bring a bottle of malbec to match, and end the meal with an oatmeal shake (sounds strange, tastes great).
Let’s get something out of the way: This mariscos place is in a dusty parking lot on a stretch of Damen Avenue that could generously be described as urban. But many factors make up for this drawback: a loud norteño band, thatched umbrellas, a giant rubber shark perched atop the restaurant. The mushy ceviche and tough tortilla chips get things off to a shaky start, but once you’re busy with a big plate of garlicky langoustines, a bucket of your own beer and an entire roll of paper towels, that dust might just start to resemble sand.
Nightwood’s patio wins for unconventional reasons: The mod space is covered, making it perhaps the best alfresco spot for inclement weather. And there’s a permanent fireplace, making it pleasant during Chicago’s disturbingly frequent frigid summer nights. Of course, a little sun never hurts when you’re eating outside—but chef Jason Vincent’s food is so addictive (particularly when he’s using spring and summer produce), and the negronis here are so smooth, you won’t miss the sun at all.
90 Miles Cuban Cafe
This sibling location of Clybourn Avenue’s popular Cuban carryout joint is nearly a spitting image of the original—same toasted Cuban sandwiches, same flaky empanadas, same garlicky yuca chips, same potent café con leche. But even if the tiny interior, with its newspaper-covered walls, elicits the same claustrophobia, the big draws here are the spacious front and back patios, tropical ambience and mixers to turn BYO liquor into mojitos.
Inside the ivy-covered walls of this Italian oasis, it’s as lush and romantic as a fairy-tale forest. It’s hard to complain about Tony Priolo’s (the chef-owner, formerly of Coco Pazzo) light, simple Italian dishes, but the food doesn’t stand a chance against the perfectly balanced setting, bathed in warm, golden light. Antipasti and something from the enormous, reasonably priced Italian wine list is all you need for a perfect summer evening.
To know Red Door is to know its patio, a huge expanse of blond wood that is one of the more lovely outdoor dining spots in the city. Chef Troy Graves, who has made a return to this space (he was the chef here when it was Meritage), tries to give Red Door a reputation for food, too, with a menu of globally inspired small plates. Some kitchen mishaps suggest the restaurant may be leaning too much on the patio for crowds, but other dishes (oyster ssam, grilled escarole gnocchi, bacon-wrapped artichokes and lemongrass-swathed chicken) could make the place a destination for eaters.
If you’re looking for the art on this patio atop the Modern Wing, rest your gaze on the bird’s-eye view of Millennium Park. But if you’re looking for the masterpieces, those are on the menu. Our favorite: Tony Mantuano’s pizzetta, which is almost always topped with copious amounts of that decadent cousin to mozzarella, burrata. With a slice of this in one hand and a cocktail in the other, you could fall into a blissful reverie here. Unfortunately, you could also be awoken from that reverie by the wail of some tourist’s kid.
III Forks Prime Steakhouse
The Chicago location of this national chain anchors “Village Market,” a 105,000-square-foot complex in Lakeshore East whose grand scale and futuristic aesthetic are reminiscent of NYC’s Battery Park City. The restaurant seats hundreds of people, a good portion of them in a large, busy bar area and a sprawling (and surprisingly chic) roof deck. If you’re wondering whether III Forks makes a decent Manhattan, the answer is yes. And though it fumbles in other departments—wet crab cake, sub-par Caesar salad—the restaurant can indeed cook every identifiable bit of a 16-ounce USDA Prime New York strip to a perfect medium-rare. If that’s all you care about, Village Market welcomes you.
Stephen Dunne, chef/partner of this Roscoe Village wine bar, was serving roasted marrow bones when Volo opened in 2005, beating the trend by about five years. Those bones (and Dunne’s sweet-pea flatbread with caramelly cippolinis) are neck-and-neck in popularity with the sexy back patio. Couples arrive early for the pillow-lined cedar cabanas, threatening to make good use of those gauzy curtains midway into their second wine flight. Try not to ogle, and focus on the roaring fire pit or occasional movies splayed across the peeling white slats of the yard’s charming century-old barn.