The first time I go outside for a run and have to dodge the outdoor seating that’s sprung up at local restaurants, I know it’s spring in Chicago.
I happen to love eating outdoors, but my husband doesn’t (he has an extreme aversion to bugs landing on his food.) So when dining sans hubby, I look for every opportunity during the warm-weather months to dine al fresco – and, thankfully, restaurateurs across the city and region happily cater to folks like me.
It’s not that the food tastes any different when eaten outdoors. It’s the ambiance I’m after – specifically, the ambiance of the surrounding neighborhood.
See, to me, food and community have always mutually reinforced one another. My Mom’s side is Polish-American, and my siblings and I grew up in the kitchen with her, her four sisters, and my Nana. Every social event I can remember was “assigned” a special food: Mom’s apple slices for our First Holy Communion parties, my aunt’s dubiously-named, but impossible-not-to-love Green Rice Casserole for Thanksgiving, and homemade hot-crossed buns and dyed eggs for Easter, tucked into baskets we took to the chapel on Holy Saturday to be blessed.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of my social gatherings still involve food. Indeed, I think food signifies something beyond sustenance for most, if not all people. Food can be an attraction, a destination, and a way to build community, whether between two people, a group of people, or an entire neighborhood (case in point: Most block parties are barbecues.)
That’s why I’m raising a glass to the restaurants that have set up tables and chairs for the start of al fresco dining season. They are helping their neighborhoods achieve many of the positive outcomes of Placemaking, by creating common, if temporary places that draw people to and from the neighborhood to support local business, share news, and find common ground.
My favorite is Scooter’s, a frozen custard shop on Paulina and Belmont in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, where families and friends gather after dinner on summer evenings for a sweet treat. (It’s also located right next to the library, another public gathering spot. Coincidence?)
What’s your favorite al fresco dining, either in Chicago or across the region?