It seems as though outdoor dining has been around forever. In fact, Chicago's outdoor-dining scene was born a mere 30 years ago.
It was April 1985 when the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance permitting restaurants to set up outdoor tables on their sidewalks. In that first year, all of 25 sidewalk-cafe licenses were issued. By the following year, that number increased to 65, and outdoor-dining participation has increased by the dozens ever since.
Today, it's relatively rare to find a restaurant that doesn't offer some sort of outdoor dining, no matter how tiny the available space. I strolled past Sushi Dokku the other day (tiny, cute place on Randolph Street), and it had an outdoor-dining space. It was exactly three two-seat tables, but, darn it, they were in the game.
The inspiration, bordering on desperation, is easy to understand. For the price of some weatherproof tables and chairs and a few flower boxes, restaurants can increase their seating capacity by 20 percent or more while adding only an extra server or two. Outdoor tables aren't pure profit, but they're close.
And the market has spoken, loudly: Chicagoans love dining outdoors. We will dine alfresco when it's raining, if there's an awning. We'll dine outdoors with temps in the upper 50s, if there's a heat lamp nearby. And when conditions are perfect, it's not uncommon, at restaurants such as Athena or Piccolo Sogno, to be quoted waits of an hour or more outdoors while indoor tables sit empty.
Even Next restaurant is offering an alfresco option this year, for crying out loud.
So this year's list of outdoor dining picks — divided, as is my wont, into New, Great View and Tried-and-True categories — is not exhaustive, because by the time I listed them all, summer would be over. These are my picks, based on intriguing new and always-reliable old spots I've visited, representing outdoor environments that really are fun to experience.
Because, 30 years after the first sidewalk cafe appeared in Chicago, a few plastic-resin chairs and some wobbly tables just don't cut it anymore.
Barcocina. The garage-style doors that surround this casual Mexican spot roll up in nice weather, turning the entire restaurant into an open-air dining space. 2901 N. Sheffield Ave., 773-687-9949.
Bin 36. Bin 36 is back, with a new owner, a new chef, a new West Loop location (where Province once lived) and an adjoining walled-in, canvas-canopied, 50-seat patio with nicely spaced tables. The myriad wine offerings remain the restaurant's main thrust (48 wines by the glass), but there's some serious cooking going on as well. 161 N. Jefferson St., 312-995-6560.
C Chicago. The city's newest (and most ambitious) seafood restaurant has a very attractive outdoor patio at Kinzie and Dearborn streets; the furniture is upscale and comfy, and the people-watching can be fascinating. 20 W. Kinzie St., 312-280-8882.
Ceres' Table. Fine food and great people watching at Ceres' sidewalk cafe. 3124 N. Broadway, 773-922-4020.
Cerise. The "cherry" on top of the Virgin Hotels Chicago is an indoor/outdoor space with a wraparound perch offering low-slung, rain-resistant furniture and excellent Loop views. The light-bites, izakaya-ish menu has some fun nibbles, including dumplings served as lollipops and oysters topped with house-made kimchee. A DJ was working the room the evening I visited. 203 N. Wabash Ave., 312-940-4400.
Cindy's. The newly opened Chicago Athletic Association hotel has quickly established itself as a destination, and a big part of that is the 13th floor rooftop space known as Cindy's, whose spectacular views include the Art Institute, virtually all of Millennium Park and the lake. There's an arched, glass roof to keep the weather at bay, and bleached-wood floors and picnic tables give the space a beach-house feel. Call well ahead to reserve a table, or resign yourself to stand-up cocktailing (assuming you get in at all). 12 S. Michigan Ave., 844-312-2221.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. You kind of want barbecue restaurants to have an outdoors element, and this NYC import obliges with a picnic-table patio out back. 923 W. Weed St., 312-462-1053.
The Duck Inn. This small Bridgeport newcomer is quite small, so the addition of a paved backyard patio, surrounded by a working vegetable garden, is a welcome addition. 2701 S. Eleanor St., 312-724-8811.
The Kensington. A rooftop garden and lounge above (and accessible through) Parliament nightclub (there's a separate entrance as well) and offering views of River North and downtown. Sip $12 cocktails, and order from a light menu of tacos, sliders and sides, all made by nearby Mercadito Counter. 812 N. Orleans St., 312-380-0004.
Labriola Ristorante & Cafe. Just east of Michigan Avenue along a raised strip above Grand Avenue, Labriola has movable windows to let the air flow into the dining room, and about 45 seats out front. 535 N. Michigan Ave., 312-955-3100.
La Sirena Clandestina. Outdoor dining is booming in the Fulton Market district, and La Sirena is jumping on the bandwagon with a sidewalk cafe along Morgan Street. 954 W. Fulton Market, 312-226-5300.
Next. The notoriously tough-to-get-into Fulton Market restaurant is trying something new with its current (runs through Sept. 6) menu, "Tapas." Using bourbon barrels for tables and offering no seats, Next has converted its sidewalk area into a virtual tapas bar, a first-come-first-served area serving a handful of tapas style dishes (each $12) and matching libations. 953 W. Fulton Market; no phone.
Oak + Char. Inside, the dining room is filled with wood and features a menu of open-flame dishes; outside, the sidewalk cafe is bordered by charred-wood planks and outfitted with overhead lights. This stretch of Huron Street isn't heavily trafficked, so the outdoor dining is peaceful. 217 W. Huron St., 312-643-2427.
Prime & Provisions. This sister property to Siena Tavern, Public House and Bull & Bear (Bar Siena opening soon in Fulton Market district) is a seriously legit, white-tablecloth steakhouse. The outdoor area is right by the main entrance and tucked under the building's overhang, done with woven furniture (and still white tablecloths). Heat lamps and some cool-looking lights hang from the ceiling. 222 N. LaSalle St., 312-726-7777.
Remington's. Another Michigan Avenue newcomer, Remington's is a straightforward American restaurant with a flower box-bordered sidewalk cafe; sliding glass windows turn the dining room into an open-air space. 20 N. Michigan Ave., 312-782-6000.
RPM Steak. There's room for 20 at the semicircular, leather-wrapped booths (just like inside) lining Kinzie Street by RPM's entrance. An awning offers some protection from glare and drizzles. Open for lunch and dinner. 66 W. Kinzie St., 312-284-4990.
Salero. This Spanish restaurant rings in its first summer with a wood-trimmed sidewalk cafe, a rustic counterpart to the white-on-white cafe at adjacent Blackbird. 621 W. Randolph St., 312-466-1000.
Seven Lions. Across from the Art Institute (the name is a nod to the lions guarding the museum's entrance), Alpana Singh's latest venture is a creative American restaurant; the 70-seat sidewalk cafe, with umbrella tables and flower boxes, will make you feel part of the city. 130 S. Michigan Ave., 312-880-0130.
Streeterville Social. This one's so new it hasn't opened yet. June 26 will be the official opening date for this 9,000 square-foot space attached to the Loews Hotel in Streeterville. There will be two environments, the Bistro (serving lunch and dinner) and Terrace (open evenings only). 455 N. Park Drive; 312-840-6600.
The dec. A 12th-floor perch is sleekly contemporary, offering glowing cube tables and a menu of burgers, sandwiches and light bites. 160 E. Pearson St., 312-573-5160.
Chicago Cut. This splendid steakhouse has a super-sized outdoor patio, with plenty of umbrella-topped tables and views of the Loop skyline and Chicago River. 300 N. LaSalle St., 312-329-1800.
Homestead on the Roof. To be honest, the view from the rooftop is less than spectacular. But the space encompasses a sprawling rooftop garden and working outdoor fireplace, and it's a delightful environment. The retracting-roof pergola offers some shelter from uncooperative weather. Note: The roof space is accessible only via a long flight of stairs. 1924 W. Chicago Ave., 773-904-1145.
Howells & Hood. The street-level patio of this beer-focused restaurant offers a full-service bar with TVs, propane-lit fire tables and very comfortable seating. And the view looking west, the bathed-in-light Wrigley Building looming against the night sky, is one of the most dramatic in the city. 435 N. Michigan Ave., 312-262-5310.
I/O Urban Roofscape. A hip, fourth-floor perch attached to the uber-hip Godfrey Hotel, the 250-seat space is equipped with high-boy tables, low-slung settees and whale's-tail umbrella tables. There's a retractable roof in case of rain. 127 W. Huron St., 312-649-2000.
Japonais by Morimoto. The lower level of this excellent Japanese restaurant is an indoor-outdoor environment that overlooks the North Branch of the Chicago River. Low-to-the-ground, clubby seating dominates. 600 W. Chicago Ave., 312-822-9600.
J. Parker. Arguably the best rooftop in the city (balancing view, food and affordability) just keeps getting better. Now there's a retractable roof to protect against rain and cold, and even on the worst weather days the view of Lincoln Park (and the city to the south) is gorgeous. And after a couple of drinks and appetizers, you can head down to Perennial Virant, at street level, for some seriously good food. 1816 N. Lincoln Ave., 312-254-4747.
Little Goat Diner. Stephanie Izard's "other" restaurant besides Girl & the Goat (at least until Duck Duck Goat opens later this year) has an ever-popular rooftop, a fun, low-key environment with nice city views. The catch: The rooftop hosts lots of private parties, so you need to call ahead to determine availability on any given night. 820 W. Randolph St., 312-888-3455.
Park Grill. Chicago's largest outdoor venue is the Plaza Grill, which offers a light, pubby menu, tons of seating (you still might have to wait for a table) and wonderful views of the Michigan Avenue streetscape (and The Bean sculpture to the east). 11 N. Michigan Ave., 312-372-7275.
River Roast. This will be River Roast's first complete summer (after opening in July), and it will take full advantage of the 120-seat riverside patio running along the restaurant's south wall. Great river and downtown views. 312 N. LaSalle St., 312-822-0100.
Smith & Wollensky. Overlooking the Chicago River and its south bank, this steakhouse's patio is topped with a white-fabric canopy that wards off rain and glare. It's a perfect sunny-day hangout. 318 N. State St., 312-670-9900.
Tanta. Last year, this Peruvian restaurant (by superstar chef Gaston Acurio) unveiled a rustic, brick-and-wood deck on the second-floor roof; this year, the restaurant has added a retractable canvas roof. The rooftop menu is limited, but there are plenty of choices. 118 W. Grand Ave., 312-222-9700.
Tavern at the Park. Steaks and other American fare can be enjoyed in the Tree House, the name of the rooftop deck, which offers a bird's nest view of Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue. 108 E. Randolph St., 312-552-0070.
The Terrace. Right outside the Peninsula Hotel's Shanghai Terrace (by far the most elegant Chinese restaurant in town) is a fourth-floor terrace, exquisitely furnished and surrounded by skyscrapers. Dress up for this one. 108 E. Superior St., 312-337-2888.
Terrace at Trump. The most awe-inspiring views in the city can be seen from the 16th floor perch of Trump Tower; you can see the lake, the river and the Loop without moving your feet. (You know what you can't see? That obnoxious TRUMP sign. Bonus.) You will pay dearly for the experience, in the form of eye-popping prices for drinks and snacks. But everybody wants to go there. 401 N. Wabash Ave., 312-588-8600.
Terzo Piano. Great Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue views from this third-floor restaurant atop the Art Institute's contemporary wing. A great destination for lunch, but Terzo Piano serves dinner only on Thursdays. 159 E. Monroe St., 312-443-8650.
III Forks. People still have a hard time finding this place, tucked into the Lakeshore East development just north of Randolph Street, but it's worth the search. The third-floor rooftop is a contemporary, steel-and-glass environment with pretty views of the adjacent park and the surrounding high-rise apartments, and it often pulls in an after-5, dressed-to-thrill crowd. 180 N. Field Boulevard, 312-938-4303.
Ada St. The artificial turf covering this brick-walled courtyard gives an ironic twist to the outdoor-dining idea, and outdoor games, hip cocktails and an excellent small-plates menu make the place just about irresistible. On June 29, street artist Anthony Venturinion will create a new mural for the space at a backyard barbecue party, part of the restaurant's "Ada for the Arts" charity initiative. 1664 N. Ada St., 773-697-7069.
Adelle's. This terrific French-American bistro, just a bit north of Wheaton's downtown, has a beautiful and serene, pergola-topped patio, ringed with iron fencing and a small flower garden. 535 W. Liberty Drive, Wheaton, 630-784-8015.
Agio. Tall fences and bushes shield this outdoor patio from the street traffic just a few yards away; the classic Italian menu is tough to beat. 64 S. Northwest Highway, Palatine, 847-991-2150.
Athena. The biggest and prettiest outdoor space in Greektown, equipped with an elaborate retractable-roof system for year-round use. But the time to go is when the roof is rolled back. 212 S. Halsted St., 312-655-0000.
Autre Monde. You have to know about this restaurant's secluded patio in back; its existence can't be spotted from outside. Ringed by fences and a brick wall sporting a colorful (and new) mural, the patio is topped with a canvas roof hung with funky light fixtures. New tables and benches offer plenty of seating (though those wood benches are tough on the keister after a while), and the Italy-inspired menu is full of wonderful choices. 6727 W. Roosevelt Road, Berwyn, 708-775-8122.
Bakersfield. The sister restaurant to Standard Market has one of the nicest patios in the suburbs, a spacious patio with gas fireplaces and heater-equipped umbrellas. 300 E. Ogden Ave., Westmont, 630-568-3615.
Bar Toma. Pizza, killer gelati and a sunny seat looking toward the historic Water Tower. You can't beat it. 110 E. Pearson St., 312-266-3110.
Boka. Just beyond the dining room is Boka's outdoor space, surrounded by a working garden and hanging herbs. There's not much room for seating, but when the weather's right and the glass doors are out of the way, even inside diners get a sense of it. 1729 N. Halsted St., 312-337-6070.
Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! One of Chicago's oldest outdoor spaces is a large patio with a sliding-glass roof. Come for the tapas, stay for the paella. 2024 N. Halsted St., 773-935-5000.
Carlucci. The ivy-covered walls of this piazza, complete with a huge central fountain, will make you think you're in Italy (except that here, no one will try to sell you a selfie stick). Live music, especially on weekends, is a big draw, but the classic Italian cuisine is a better one. 1801 Butterfield Road, Downers Grove, 630-512-0990.
The Dawson. A steel-and-wood pergola and barrel bar tables give this spacious patio a rough-hewn, built-by-hand vibe. You can get small dishes in the bar area, and the rest of the outdoors has tables for full-service dining. 730 W. Grand Ave., 312-243-8955.
Fat Rice. The back patio, built last summer, adds a mere 12 seats to the restaurant. But when your dining room holds only 38 (and that’s with every seat and counter space filled), that’s a significant increase. 2957 W. Diversey Ave., 773-661-9170.
Fiorentino's. You'll feel far removed from Ashland Avenue in the cozy outdoor space here. A sturdy canopy guards against rain while filtering the sun's glare, while soft hanging lights and a pretty garden add charm. 2901 N. Ashland Ave., 773-244-3026.
Found. A 25-seat, Parisian-style sidewalk cafe adds a couple dozen much-needed seats at this popular downtown Evanston destination. 1631 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-868-8945.
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse. The Oak Brook location has a magnificently landscaped outdoor patio, including a waterfall that drowns out nearby traffic noise. An outdoor bar has HD TVs in case there's a ballgame somewhere. 2105 Spring Road, Oak Brook, 630-954-0000.
Girl & the Goat. Two long, communal tables make up G&G's sidewalk cafe. There's no respite from the sun or any rain, but it does add about 20 more seats to this perpetually booked-up restaurant. 809 W. Randolph St., 312-492-6262.
Marion Street Cheese Market. A huge awning with drop-down sides offers plenty of protection for Marion Street's sidewalk cafe, where you can enjoy the full menu. Weather permitting, there's live jazz Wednesdays and Fridays. 100 S. Marion St., Oak Park, 708-725-7200.
Maya Del Sol. There may be a better combination of beautiful patio and excellent margaritas in the area, but I haven't found it yet. This will do just fine. 144 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, 708-538-9800.
May St. Cafe. A little bit Mexican, a little bit steakhouse (the steaks are prime), this Pilsen restaurant has a very pleasant covered patio, and even though there is no view (nothing you want to see, anyway), when the weather's right, nobody eats indoors. 1146 W. Cermak Road, 312-421-4442.
Mon Ami Gabi. The secluded outdoor patio of this classic bistro, overlooking Lincoln Park, overflows with charm. 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, 773-348-8886.
Perennial Virant. The 70-seat patio in front of this accomplished restaurant is a magnet for Lincoln Park residents and visitors every summer. Maybe that's why they call it Perennial. 1800 N. Lincoln Ave., 312-981-7070.
Piccolo Sogno. Privacy fencing, beautiful uplit landscaping and a superb Italian menu make Piccolo Sogno the definitive outdoor-dining spot in Chicago. If this place were twice as big, they'd have twice as many customers — that's how popular it is. 464 N. Halsted St., 312-421-0077.
The Purple Pig. One of the smartest things the Purple Pig owners ever did was to convert their building's “sidewalk to nowhere” into a de-facto wine-and-swine promenade. The huge purple tent on the west end is equipped with heat lamps for cooler nights (the space is useable for at least three seasons) and impervious to rain. If you want to feel the sun on your face though, you'll have to step into the waiting area. 500 N. Michigan Ave., 312-464-1744.
RM Champagne Salon. An awning-covered, iron-fenced back porch, walk-out courtyard and slide-away glass doors create one of the funkiest urban-outdoor settings in the city, a fine place to peruse the bubbly-friendly menu and knock back a dozen oysters. RM's outdoor space abuts the outdoor areas belonging to Graham Elliot Bistro (841 W. Randolph St.) and Green Street Smoked Meats (112 N. Green St.), and the converging sights, sounds and aromas add to the fun. 116 N. Green St., 312-243-1199.
Stella Barra and Summer House. The interior of Stella Barra Pizzeria is dark, but out back there's a sunny (potentially), brick-walled patio with light strings and a retracting roof. Next door, Summer House Santa Monica has a retractable glass roof over the dining room, as well as a secluded 16-seat patio. Both patios are nice environments when they're not hosting private parties, which is often. 1954 N. Halsted St., 773-634-4101.
Sumi Robata Bar. Gene Kato's small-plates Japanese restaurant has an adjacent landscaped, wood-clad deck with a pretty Zen garden. A perfect setting for the chef's food. 702 N. Wells St., 312-988-7864.
Tesori. The outdoor garden behind this Italian restaurant, attached to Symphony Center, is a semi-tranquil and leafy oasis in the Loop. Tranquil except for when an "L" train screeches nearby, but you get used to it. 65 E. Adams St., 312-786-9911.
Vettel is a Tribune critic.