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Let's Go Alfresco

Want to eat or drink outside? We've found the finest Chicago beer gardens and sidewalk patios.
Friday Jul 30, 2010.     By Centerstage Chicago Staff
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

photo: courtesy of Clifton Henri, pictured: Volo
'Tis the season to fire up the grills, pack the picnic baskets and dodge eating inside whenever possible. Whether you're looking for a noisy beer garden or a secluded and serene patio, we've found some of the city's best alfresco options.

Beer Gardens/Patios

The beer garden here, spacious and generously shaded by a towering cottonwood, is a Lakeview legend. Dig through the bar's stash of board games (Scrabble, anyone?), and then grab a seat at one of the many picnic tables or high-tops. You could spend countless days here trying to land on triple-word squares and browsing through the 34-page almanac of microbrews. It might take you awhile to find the perfect ale to pair with your pulled-pork sammie or grilled cheese.

Montrose Saloon
How many other Chicago beer gardens can offer games and plenty of space for kicking back? Montrose's patio, which is twice the size of the no-frills inside, feels more like a drunk uncle's side yard in the sticks than anything urban. You'll find a tent and grill for parties, tables built on tree stumps and a horseshoe pit where veteran regulars school rookies in the art of pitching. Games are free every day on a first-come, first-served basis; if the pit is crowded, hit the Sox vs. Cubs-theme bean bag toss instead.

Happy Village
The main room of the Happy Village isn't much to look at: a bar, a juke and some runaway patio furniture. But, behold the beer garden! Glowing with kitschy, garden party ambiance, with room for up to 100 patrons, it's bordered by a row of dense hedge. The space, which has a pond, wooden arches draped with greenery, plenty of flimsy plastic chairs and dowdy cement angel statues, stays open until the neighbors start to complain.

Cody's Public House
Sure, you've heard of BYOB, but what about BYOM? That's Bring Your Own Meat, which you can do at this West Lakeview tap, where patrons get free reign of the beer garden's grills. Tall trees loom overhead, vines wrap around the fence and white metallic patio chairs give the patio a sense of grace. Leashed pups bark at bad bocce ball tosses as they fall outside the regulation-size court. If you're lucky, one of the friendly regulars from the bar will step outside for some fresh air and chat you up.

In the summer, you won't find a better spot to imbibe outside than the beer garden at this Southport spot. Almost as large as the main room inside, it offers plenty of shade and a comfortable feel. Though large and small tables, benches and bar stools scatter throughout, on most summer nights, and especially after Cubs games, it's standing room only. A separate alfresco bar serves the garden, which means you won't be holding an empty glass while your waitress treks inside to fill your order.

Village Tap
A self-proclaimed neighborhood bar, the Tap is proud of its off-the-beaten-path status ("i.e., where you can still park" its Web site proclaims). Still, it registers on the radars of many fresh air-mongers: It's no secret that the beer garden here is one of the city's best, if for no other reason than it's open year-round. When you're climbing up the walls of your shrinking apartment in the dead of winter, head out and grab a seat at a picnic table in the covered, heated environs. There's even a flat-screen to keep you company.

Moody's Pub
This Edgewater favorite's two-tiered garden has ample seating for couples and crowds, privacy from the road, waterfalls, wall ivy and plenty of silver maple trees, making this a hands-down winner for summertime socializing. It doesn't hurt that the bar food is above average and the beer is reasonably priced.

Resi's Bierstube
Almost everyone knows this Lincoln Square spot as a great place to get almost any German brew you could want, but its awesome beer garden is a slightly better guarded secret. Two enormous trees shade the fenced-in backyard, whose flowers and foliage make this quiet corner a scenic place to share a sausage plate or sample one of Resi's 150 imported bottled beers (Resi's was supposedly the first to offer weiss beer in Chicago, and offers more than 20 weiss beers today).

Cedar Hotel
When Melvin B's closed in 2007, Gold Coasters wondered where they would be able to see and be seen in an outdoor setting. The answer: right back in the same spot. This replacement, opened in late summer 2009, acts like flypaper for tourists, bon vivants and shoppers alike, with a full menu and cocktails served in 24-ounce souvenir cups.

If you're looking for a little eye candy to go with your beer, this bi-level patio filled with young professionals is the place to be. It gets better: Every Thursday beginning at 4 p.m., patrons at the Lincoln Park bar can enjoy $2 hot dogs, $4 burgers and $5 chicken sandwiches from the outdoor grill and $2.50 Miller Lite and Coors Light bottles, $3.50 call drinks and $4 house wine.

Nick's Beer Garden
Come on, this place has beer garden in the title, how could we not include it? Don't worry, it doesn't make the list on name alone - the large outdoor seating area is covered, which makes it a good bet in almost any weather. And with Nick's generally amiable crowd and good beer selection, it makes for a nice retreat from the overly hip spots surrounding it in Wicker Park.

Fizz Bar & Grill
If you're gonna serve a full menu of tiki drinks, you'd better have someplace people can enjoy them outdoors. And this Lakeview bar comes through with a huge, half-covered space perfect for lounging with your cocktail (or beer, or pizza) for hours. It's not totally secluded, so you can also catch a glimpse of busy Lincoln Avenue while you imbibe.

This West Town spot is one place that actually pays attention to the "garden" part of "beer garden." Flowers and plants bloom in the expansive space, and when the walls aren't covered by leaves, art takes its place. It all makes for a nice, relaxing place to cap off your night in the area - and a welcome respite from the tight confines of the Matchbox down the street.

The Temple Bar
Named after a popular pub in Dublin's nightlife quarter, this Lakeview bar just may prove itself to be as infamous as the original, thanks in part to a bustling 90-seat outdoor patio (nearly a city block long!) on the corner of Wellington and Ashland. You may not feel as if you're back on the Emerald Isle...but get back to us after a few whiskey flights.

Old Oak Tap
The gorgeous 80-seat haven at this West Town bar/restaurant features wooden bench seating wrapping around the entire perimeter, hanging lanterns and tons of flowers. That's nice, but what really sets the place apart is the beer list (12 taps and 20-plus bottle options) and the menu, full of above-average pub fare like the intriguing Fat Boy Pie: pulled pork shoulder, sharp Vermont cheddar, tomatoes, spring onions and black olives, green goddess dressing, french fries and mashed potatoes ($10). Not recommended on a really hot day, obviously.

Jack's Bar and Grill/404 Wine Bar
This Lakeview establishment houses two different, connected concepts: Jack's, a neighborhood sports bar, and 404, a slightly more refined spot with gourmet fare. They come together, both literally and figuratively, on the spacious back patio, where you can order off either menu and enjoy a serene atmosphere with low lights and, yes, TVs for the big games. It's perfect for a low-key date on a summer evening.

Outdoor Dining

This enchanting house-turned-restaurant sits tucked away on a tree-lined side street. For a truly romantic dining experience, lovebirds can reserve one of the seven tables on the deck. The menu here pleases gourmet palates: New Orleans-style black grouper with sake-ginger sauce and, for vegetarians with refined tastes, goat cheese, vegetable and tofu burrito served with pico de gallo and avocado mousse.

When the weather is warm, this authentic Italian restaurant's Wells Street sidewalk patio offers prime people watching, or you can visit the secluded garden out back, which sets the perfect scene for enjoying a glass of wine or a hearty dish of lasagna Bolognese. The grapevine overhang will keep you cool, lest you polish off a few too many bottles of vino.

Sit among the marigolds on this elegant Indian restaurant's patio in Uptown. Located in front of the business, the small outdoor area, which seats about 20 people, is surrounded by mahogany planters filled with—you guessed it—marigolds. Enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine while you sit back, take in the contrasting urban atmosphere of Broadway Avenue, and dig into a plate of tandoori-style chicken.

Jimmy's Grill
Jimmy's huge outdoor patio located at a busy intersection in downtown Naperville makes for the best people watching west of the city. Go during the day, and you'll see families taking their dogs for a stroll. Go at night, and this intersection turns into a lively nightlife scene full of college kids and young suburbanites hopping from one bar to the next. Plan to arrive early or you may have to wait in line for a seat.

Hackney's on Harms
Though its sister locations (including one in the South Loop) have respectable patios, this Hackney's boasts one of the best outdoor dining environs in the Chicagoland area. Towering silver poplars line the stately restaurant's backyard. Order a pint of Stiegl, a legendary burger served on rye and a thick-as-a-brick fried-onion loaf. If you feel energized after eating, the North Branch Trail runs right across the street; take it seven miles north to the Chicago Botanic Garden for the perfect end to a warm, sunny day.

The Garden Cafe at the Art Institute of Chicago
From late spring to early fall, this shady courtyard, with tables set up around Carl Mille's gurgling "Fountain of the Tritons," offers alfresco dining for art lovers. With salads, sandwiches and entrees costing $10-$15, The Garden isn't a cheap lunch date, but the seasonal menu of contemporary American cuisine sets it apart from more popular Loop lunchtime spots. For an even more elegant experience, try Terzo Piano, the Modern Wing restaurant which offers indoor and outdoor seating adjacent to the Bluhm Family Terrace. Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano designed the menu.

Cafe Selmarie
There's no shortage of delightful Euro imports in Lincoln Square. Every block in the neighborhood lands you steps from a stein of Spaten or a freshly baked baguette. But on any given summer night at Cafe Selmarie, you can relax on its sprawling patio on the ped mall and watch locals learn to tango. It just doesn't get any more Euro than that. Part bakery, part restaurant, Selmarie dishes up homemade pastries and rich bistro-inspired fare. Grab a chocolate hazelnut butter cream torte and a glass of red to feel like a Parisian in no time.

Seasoned entrepreneur/chef Michael Altenberg is the sustainability-conscious mind behind Chicago's first certified organic restaurant. Crust's back patio offers seating for 120 in a closed-off space safe from street noise. Take a seat at a wrought-iron table and dig in to Altenberg's individual-size flatbreads ($10-$14), which look like thin-crust pizzas but have a more refined attitude. Wash 'em down with a lemon- and lemongrass-infused Rain organic vodka on the rocks.

El Nuevo Mexicano
Do you look back on Spring Break in Cancun and wish you could go back? If so, grab your sunglasses and hurry on down to this authentic Mexican restaurant with high-quality, hearty dishes and a killer patio. Nestled into a row of residential backyards, the garden seating affords a certain amount of privacy for couples playing footsy and drunken men loudly reminiscing about their college days. Since nothing goes better with sunshine than tequila, be sure to order a pomegranate margarita—or two. Just stay away from any body shots.

This wine bar's backyard turns a gussied up, 100-year-old patina barn into a cocktail space, replete with cabana beds, an organic garden and wine tasting events. Enveloped by trees, sprinkled with fountains and huddled into a row of homey buildings on Roscoe, it couldn't be a more perfect oenophile oasis than if a river of pinot ran through it. Go on Monday, when bottles of wine are half-price, though any day will do for munching on a cheese plate and a sweet pea pizza.

Oak Street Beachstrophoto: courtesy of Bridget Cicenia
Oak Street Beachstro
This seasonal restaurant is as close to the beach as you'll get with a steak in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Take in Chicago's beautiful skyline as bikers, rollerbladers, sunbathers and strollers enjoy the sights and sounds just steps away from your table. Enjoy steak, pastas, seafood, sandwiches and a decent selection of wine and beer as the sun goes down and the skyline lights up.

Palmer Place
From American microbrews to Australian ales, just about any beer under the sun can be had at Palmer Place in downtown LaGrange. This spot even carries a beer from Nambia! As if a copious amount of chilled brews wasn't enough to draw in the summer crowd, a double-decker outdoor patio really seals the deal. Bonus points for the sunshine-perfect menu of barbecue, brats and gourmet burgers.

Coco Pazzo Cafe
Want to live like an Italian? That's what this Streeterville Tuscan restaurant has in mind with its Afternoon Alfresco menu, served daily on its popular patio from 2:30-5 p.m. Chef Eric Hammond offers small plates like mini panino with fillings like prosciutto and arugula, and bruschetta topped with asparagus, parmesan, mushrooms and truffle oil. Wines by the glass are served as well. If you're more of a late eater, the patio stays open all evening.

Piccolo Sogno
There are a ton of Italian restaurants in Chicago, so you've gotta find a way to set yourself apart. This River West restaurant, which replaced Timo in 2008, has a built-in advantage: a beautiful, secluded back patio. No matter what you're eating, you're sure to have a relaxing, romantic meal in the lush atmosphere, which is filled with garden plants of several varieties. The patio is the attraction at this spot - so much so, in fact, that even some of the indoor seating looks like it was meant for outdoor use.

Lucia's Ristorante
A far cry from this Wicker Park spot's busy deli up front (it's a great place to grab a sandwich, by the way), the restaurant's secluded back patio is all about relaxation and comfort. Even more comfortable than the atmosphere is the price; Lucia's is BYOB, so all you'll be paying for is your pasta.

More of a high flier? Check out our guide to Chicago rooftop bars.


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