As Chicago lurches toward summer through seesaw temperatures and torrential thunderstorms, chairs tentatively appear, and tables, upended, await the city’s contact sport of the season, alfresco dining. Despite Chicago’s newfound cosmopolitanism, it’s never been mistaken for the Paris of the Midwest—climatic chaos can swiftly thwart those partaking of a leisurely outdoor repast. But in those lilting moments between formidable thunderheads and sauna mugginess, urban oases do appear for a bucolic nosh and tipple.
The waiters at Fireside Restaurant, 5739 N. Ravenswood (773-561-7433), wear shirts adorned with the motto “Once you find us you won’t forget us.” Both halves of the phrase are equally true: unless you live within a couple leafy blocks of this Edgewater haunt, located just across the railroad tracks from the Rosehill Cemetery, you may never have known of its existence. But its impressive outdoor patio, intelligently tented to keep breezes blowing but rain from flowing, makes an afternoon memorable regardless of Harry Volkman’s forecast. The wood-planked, bilevel expanse can seat more than sixty for an extensive, hearty menu of upscale pub food and American dining at reasonable prices, with a drinks list to match, including a revolving roster of microbrews. Fireside loves potatoes —you can get a baked potato, fries, or some of the city’s tastiest mashed potatoes as a side dish with most sandwiches. The real draw, however, seems to be the BBQ ribs. A slab about the size of a xylophone appeared on every other plate one late Sunday afternoon. From 10am-3pm, a Sunday brunch features weekly specials and a do-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar with 150 different ingredients.
Around July, this city gets so muggy the mosquitoes are lugging dehumidifiers. A great way to get out of the kitchen is to stake a claim at one of Ennui Café’s, 6981 N. Sheridan (773-973-2233), outdoor tables with a nice extra-large iced latté. The interior, with its black-and-white tiled floor, hanging plants and local art, fairly rattles with industrial-sized electric fans. But the twenty or so outdoor seats are perfectly situated among trees and planters on a Sheridan Road corner between and Lunt and Morse—two blocks from the beach, with lake breezes virtually guaranteed. Loyola students come and go, talking more of law than Michelangelo, but Rogers Park locals of all ages and stripes seek respite from the swelter here until 11pm, playing chess or arguing politics.
Only a sidewalk strip of seating is provided for patrons of the Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square, 4732 N. Lincoln (773-784-4444), but this place is tops for Teutonic tipples. The owner of this Bavarian restaurant has a singular passion for German beer and, on one Saturday afternoon, spoke at great length about his unique “beer-glass bidet,” which chills glasses to the temperature of the Spaten, Steigl, Bitburger and other brews pouring forth from the taps—no more, no less. You’d be hard-pressed to find better pretzels in Munich. But perhaps liver-dumpling soup is more appetizing around Oktoberfest, ja?
Without intentionally re-establishing Franco-Prussian hostilities, Lincoln Square’s—and perhaps Chicago’s—most unabashedly romantic spot for outdoor dining is Bistro Campagne, 4518 N. Lincoln (773-271-6100), located in the former Villa Kula space. White table linens, surrounded by lush foliage, strings of lights, a fountain, and brick pathways illuminated by lanterns, create a secluded environment perfect for classic French bistro fare such as escargots, steak frites and créme brulée.
If the breezes are lightly puffing, and wispy clouds are lazily drifting above a 75-degree weekend afternoon, you’d hardly find a more idyllic retreat than La Creperie, 2845 N. Clark (773-528-9050). A Lakeview institution since 1971, its signature crépes aren’t quite as authentic as the younger Crépes de Paris, further down on Clark past Fullerton; but who could really mind, while dreamily whiling away the hours in the quiet backyard garden, with its lovely shade trees, burbling fountain and festive lights? The ambience is perfectly South of France here, with reasonably priced wines and a splendid Normandy cider, and after a bottle or two among friends you may completely forget you’re in Middle America. Be prepared for a brunch crunch, as diners descend to the white-and-red checked tablecloths at 11am sharp for specials like a cream-cheese omelette, accompanied by strong French coffee. But by 2 or 3pm, quiet chatter and languorous service invite you to strongly consider 35-hour workweeks and an August holiday.
The stretch of Southport between School and Addison streets welcomes a host of curbside dining opportunities. After a couple hours beneath the twinkling stars of the Music Box Theater, reacquaint your eyes with the daylight at nearby Cullen’s, 3741 N. Southport (773-975-0600), one of the few Irish pubs in the city where outdoor seating and Irish brogues may both be found in abundance. Traditional Irish dishes and brews are excellent, of course, but there are those who make an excursion here simply for the finely balanced Bloody Marys, which include a generous lump of horseradish resting on an oversized cucumber slice.