How Chicago Bars & Restaurants Are Coping With COVID-19

Since the days of stockyards and stein halls, hospitality has been the lifeblood of Chicago. Today’s landscape is a mix of working class roots and high-society aspirations -- three-starred stunners and glitzy chophouses share blocks with neighborhood dive bars and late-night hot dog joints, Italian beef sandwiches and juicy Polish sausages hold just as much clout as 12-course molecular gastronomy tasting menus, and your bartender literally knows your name because he’s probably also your neighbor. The industry sustains the city, so what happens when the government abruptly shuts it all down?

On Sunday March 15, Governor J.B. Pritzger stood behind a podium and berated his constituents for flagrantly ignoring weekend pleas for social distancing and continuing on with massive pub crawls and other St. Patrick’s Day festivities. "I tried earlier this week to appeal to everyone's good judgement to stay home, to avoid bars, not to congregate in crowds. It's unfortunate that many people didn't take that seriously," Pritzker said with the woeful sincerity of a dad who really, truly means business this time. "The time for persuasion and public appeals is over. The time for action is here.” He then ordered all bars and restaurants to close their doors to the public for at least two weeks.

So how have Chicago bars and restaurants (and the folks that love them) responded in the face of a blow that could potentially devastate not only restaurateurs but also the servers, bartenders, bussers, cooks, suppliers, and everyone else that keeps them up and running? To put it briefly: swiftly and creatively.

Expanded Delivery and Take-Out

Because the state is allowing off-premise sales (i.e. pick-up and delivery) to continue, the first move many eateries made was to drastically up their take-out game. And we’re not just talking pizza and egg rolls -- fine dining spots are offering hungry Chicagoans a chance to take the white tablecloth to-go. In a press statement Monday, West Town’s Michelin-starred Temporis announced their Dinner for Two program, a hand-packed multi-course bundle available for pick-up or delivery for $70 (an extra $30 scores you a bottle of wine) in an effort to “support the independent restaurant’s staff, as well neighbors and ingredient purveyors during this uncertain time.” Beloved Armitage Avenue gastropub Scofflaw is promising much-needed comforts like double cheeseburgers, crispy chickpeas, and Texas toast piled with Smoking Goose ham and braised greens every evening starting March 17. Polished West Loop favorite Avec is boxing up their entire menu (hello chorizo-stuffed dates) alongside bottles of red, white, rose, and sparkling from 12pm to 8pm daily. Lauded restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You (RPM Steak, RPM Italian, Aba, so many more) has organized a page to keep take-out customers sated and Ukrainian Village wine bar All Together Now has gone so far as to install a “drive-through window” facing Chicago Avenue as well as dedicated phone line for the cheeseboard-curious.

Drive-Thrus and Curbside Pick-Up

“In addition to delivery, new social distance initiatives include a ‘drive through window’ where guests can walk (drive, bike, or roller skate) on up to our window and place an order for food, wine, cheese, olives, tinned fish, beer, cultured butter, etc.,” notes co-owner Erin Carlman Weber. “Our Wine & Cheese Hotline (773-661-1599) is up and running for callers to receive personalized recommendations for all their wine and cheese needs for pickup.” 

But it’ll take more than curbside expansion to keep these companies afloat. Amid all the mandates, empty streets, fear, and confusion, these restaurants still need customers. That’s where Dining with a Distance, a brand new online database listing hundreds of Chicagoland area restaurants still open for off-premise dining, comes in.

“My wife and I were browsing Twitter and saw that a news reporter sent out a tweet after the announcement came from the governor saying, 'Who's staying open? Why? How?'” Dining with a Distance co-creator Sean Lynch explained Monday evening. “I work as a Senior Product Manager at Huge, a digital experience agency, and our ethos is all about making information consumable and understandable for users. So when I saw the tweet I was like, 'This is great information in context but how can we turn into a product that's usable and accessible?' I just took out my computer and started building. I began with 20 entries and now we're at 515. It's been a crazy day.”

The restaurant-lover’s site features an interactive spreadsheet sortable by restaurant name, types of services offered, delivery partners like Grubhub and DoorDash, and neighborhood among other classifications. Physical addresses, websites, phone numbers, and additional details are also accounted for. As of Tuesday at 12:30pm, the collection spans 786 local outposts. 

“The plan is to keep it up as long as we can and bring awareness to the fact that restaurants still need business,” Lynch continued. “It’s basically a value exchange where by eating we're helping employees and restaurants survive what has become a horrible time for all of us.”

Funds to Support Service Industry Workers

Speaking of employees, efforts to keep Chicago’s service workers in the black during the lock-out have also begun popping up around town. Celebrated Pilsen concert venue Thalia Hall has teamed up with Dusek's, Tack Room, and Punch House to launch a GoFundMe campaign aiming to raise upwards of $30,000 for hourly staff members weathering this paycheck-less storm. Workwear company Stock Mfg.  and creative hospitality studio Leisure Activities have also joined forces to found Chicago Hospitality United, a special line of T-shirts directly benefiting hourly staffers from participating bars and restaurants. Shirts run $25 and include an option to tip if you’re inclined to show some extra love. Current partners include the aforementioned Scofflaw and All Together Now along with Birrieria Zaragoza, Elske, Hopewell Brewing’s Taproom, Ludlow Liquors, Mini Mott, Mott St, Passerotto, Pacific Standard Time, Moon Palace, and Young American, though the list is still growing.

“The speed and thoughtfulness with which Chicago Hospitality United came together has been a bright, inspiring spot in an otherwise gloomy stretch of days,” adds Carlman Weber of All Together Now. “There’s no government-backed net to catch the thousands of hardworking people who call this industry home, but at least we’ve got each other. Plus, the shirts are cool as hell.” 

“Chicago Hospitality United is an amazing initiative and I’m grateful to be included,” says Moon Palace’s Lily Wang. Wang and her family have been operating the Shanghainese Chinatown staple for decades and jumped at the chance to sign onto the project. “We are running with a skeleton crew and have been doing contactless pick-ups and deliveries. This has been a tough decision for us because my parents are in the higher risk age group, but this is their livelihood and at the moment, they don’t have another option. I’m thankful for people like Wade [McElroy of Leisure Activities] who are being proactive and looking out for others in the community. We need to focus on supporting one another and staying positive.”

Sign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Meredith Heil is a contributor for Thrillist.