Weather, Regulators Meet Their Match With Outdoor Cafes


Patrons love eating outside during warmer months, but what is the real cost to operators?

Whoever said you can’t beat City Hall or Mother Nature might want to talk to some savvy restaurateurs with outdoor dining spaces who have learned to do just that.

Cold-weather days, blazing-hot-sunny ones and the licensing fees that local governments impose are frustrating discomforts that operators endure for the sake of a traditional sidewalk café or city park location.

Yet by choosing novel sites like high-rise rooftops, abandoned parking lots, patios, and private space adjoining, but not on, public sidewalks, operators are escaping the clutches of revenue-grabbing local governments.

At the same time and at the same locations, operators are taming brutish-cold-wet-windy days—as well as scorching hot sunny ones—with retractable roofs that can cover hundreds of square feet or are installing large table umbrellas. Even for diehard guests who want to dine outdoors in seasons when Jack Frost is back, operators are providing plush blankets for their guests and installing a variety of heating options for customers and serving staffs.

Taking advantage of the 3,000-square-foot outdoor open space on its property, the outdoor dining patio at Café Ba Ba Reeba in Chicago’s historic Lincoln Park neighborhood exemplifies the best practices of operators who are buffering themselves from local government fees and the peccadilloes of the weather.

One of the many full-service restaurants in the diverse and cutting-edge portfolio of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the 26-year-old Café Ba Ba Reeba is a local dining favorite in the Windy City, best known nationally as one of the pioneers in tapas and small-plate food presentations.

Michael Cunningham, proprietor-partner of Ba Ba Reeba, says that of the 330 seats on the restaurant’s property—which actually occupies three building lots—80 are on an outdoor dining patio, a 25-foot-by-125-foot space with a hand-cranked retractable roof that can be deployed within minutes.

He said the outdoor dining space averages about 300 guests a night on a busy night, or one table turn every 90 minutes. Although the restaurant takes reservations for indoor seating, it is first-come, first-served seating on the patio. Nevertheless, some guests are willing to wait 2.5 hours to dine outdoors.

Cunningham says that when Ba Ba Reeba’s patio makes its annual spring debut in April, and if the weather is particularly cooperative, it is not uncommon to generate 400 to 500 diners as winter-weary Chicagoans bask in the first blushes of spring.


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