Last year, restaurants and bars pushed the bounds of outdoor dining in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19 with open-air hospitality. Now, although mask mandates and capacity limits continue to change on a seemingly daily basis, many establishments have reopened their doors and welcomed patrons into dining rooms once more. Guests once again have a choice: indoor or outdoor? Pandemic concerns aside, is outdoor dining truly the superior choice? Or does an indoor dining room’s intimate, less buggy atmosphere make it the most pleasant setting? The members of the Takeout staff sound off.
I love the idea of outdoor dining, just like I love the idea of wearing a little sliver of a tank top without my sweaty underboob zone becoming the corporeal equivalent of a Schlitterbahn water park. But it’s time to face the truth: I’m sweaty and gross, and most outdoor dining experiences aren’t all that pleasant. There are a few exceptions—namely, open-air cocktail bars, brewery patios, and The Freeze, Chicago’s beloved Tastee-Freeze franchise where you can get a hot dog with fries for under five bucks. These are all marvelous outdoor dining experiences. But when it comes time to eat something substantial—pad thai, perhaps, or some kind of pork product—I’d rather relish the comfort of the indoors.
Perhaps this is because of Chicago’s busted climate. In Chicago, there are maybe three or four days per year that meet the criteria for pleasant outdoor dining (zero humidity, the slightest hint of a breeze, no mosquitos or flies, no city-wide sewer smell). The rest of the time, you’re stuck focusing your energy on swatting away flies and keeping your sweating water glass away from your phone. It zaps the intimacy of the thing. Plus, I spend enough time outdoors. I’m very fond of hikes and bikes and climbs and things, but if I’m going out on the town to dine, I’m banking on a few hours of precious air conditioning. For me, in the majority of cases, anything outdoor dining can do, indoor dining can do better.
In our current work-from-home reality, one of the most irritating parts of the summer season has been blessedly stripped away: I’m no longer being blasted with frigid, inescapable office-wide air conditioning eight hours straight, five days a week. There’s no bigger bummer than commuting with a bulky winter sweater that you’ll have to throw on over your business casual outfit on a 95-degree day, then briefly stepping outside into the sticky heat of the sidewalk before ducking into an equally chilly restaurant for after-work drinks, wishing you weren’t seated by the vent. Give me a shaded outdoor table over recirculated air any day. There’s just something about the natural, breezy surroundings that enhances the experience of eating.
Bugs and odors can definitely be an issue, as Lillian points out. Not every restaurant gets outdoor seating right, but the patios worth patronizing generally understand how to orient their garbage cans, umbrellas, tables, and barriers so as to minimize these issues. If a restaurant just slaps three bistro tables onto a cramped front sidewalk and calls it “outdoor dining,” then sure, I’ll skip it. But that’s the point: on a beautiful day, I’d rather skip a great restaurant altogether than settle for indoor dining. Chicago only has so many beautiful days, and you have to make each moment of summer count.
Barring any dangerous heat waves, I want the seasons to feel like what they feel like, and if that involves a few pit stains along the way, well, there’s something character-building about dispensing with appearances as you tear into a fried fish sandwich at a picnic table. What’s a little sweat among friends?