With spring about in full swing and the pandemic still a part of our daily lives, it is no wonder people are looking forward to the return of outdoor dining. 

After confusion last year as COVID-19 exploded on the scene and shuttered indoor dining, Oak Park is working to get ahead of the game this year and has already approved some permits for outdoor dining. The village is waiving the annual permit fees for outdoor dining this year. And, as permits are issued and set-ups are inspected and approved, restaurants are welcome to open outdoor seating immediately.

“We understand the challenges that local restaurants have faced this past year,” said Cameron Davis, assistant director of development customer services. “We hope that this fee waiver is helpful as restaurants plan for outdoor dining.”

Complicating things for the restaurants in the Southtown area at the Eisenhower, is a water and sewer project that has eliminated street parking and limited traffic to one lane going north. Tammie Grossman, director of development customer services, says the village schedule the work to start early in the construction season. Is should wrap up by mid-May.

Emails have been sent to 89 Oak Park restaurants from the village inviting them to apply for the program and encouraged those interested in utilizing existing public parking spaces for outdoor dining to email the village to have their request reviewed.

“Last year it was a scramble to rent barricades to form outdoor dining areas because everyone was looking for them and they became difficult to find,” said Tammie Grossman, director of development customer services. “But this year we are ready because the village purchased the barriers.”

The rented barricades cost the village almost $70,000 in 2020.

Though outdoor dining traditionally starts on April 1, any restaurant receiving preliminary approval for their outdoor dining area may set it up immediately. Once the patio space is set up, village officials will inspect the area and make sure it adheres to all accessibility and safety requirements.

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“We will be vigilant about making sure there is a five-foot path on all sidewalks,” said Davis. “Accessibility is a top priority in Oak Park.”

There are no plans for any communal dining areas in the village as part of the outdoor dining plan like the one arranged near Boss Burrito, 1110 Westgate St., last year. Grossman said public dining spaces were “underutilized” and there is not high demand for public dining areas.

Grossman and Davis said several applications have come in and have already been approved. They are excited that Taco Bros, 2 Chicago Ave., is a new addition to outdoor dining in Oak Park. Their first-time application has been approved and tables will soon appear on the northwest corner of Austin Blvd. and Chicago Avenue.

After a successful outdoor dining effort in 2020, Kettlestings Tavern, 800 S. Oak Park Ave., has been approved to set up their patio on Van Buren again in 2021. The space is sure to be especially valuable given the road construction impacting several Oak Park Avenue restaurants including Kettlestrings.

Road construction has compromised access to restaurants on the 800 and 900 blocks of South Oak Park Avenue, but Grossman said the dates for the project were selected to have minimal impact on outdoor dining.

“The Oak Park Avenue project is nowhere near the scope of the Lake Street project,” said Grossman. “Public works notified the businesses in January and the work will be wrapped up in early to mid-May. We thought this was the best time to do it; long before people really start dining outdoors regularly.”

Grossman and Davis both consider Oak Park restaurants to be in a unique position given the struggles of the past. They anticipate a robust outdoor dining season, combined with indoor dining options, will make it easy for residents to support local eateries.

“Oak Park has an extensive history when it comes to outdoor dining,” said Davis. “We have 89 restaurants that qualify for public outdoor dining and 55 have a history of offering outdoor tables. They know how to do it right.”

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