Multiple Wilmette restaurants owners are expanding their outdoor dining plans for the winter season in an effort to combat the latest challenge of operating and staying afloat during a global pandemic.
Wilmette’s Village Board approved temporary-use permit applications from Sophia Steak, Pescadero, Convito Cafe and Valley Lodge Tavern during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 23.
The board’s approval allows the four local eateries to move forward with their respective plans to either construct or maintain covered seating areas for the purpose of serving diners outdoors during the winter months. The efforts are in response to indefinite local and state mandates to limit indoor seating capacity.
Now that the restaurants have received approval from the board to apply for permits, they must submit their detailed plans to village staff to obtain approval of those permits. Those permits must include the restaurant’s site plans, tent sizes, and fire, safety and health compliance measures.
Trustees spent a significant portion of their discussion Sept. 23 reviewing Sophia Steak’s plans to locate a tent over the existing parking lot behind its building, as several concerns were raised by residents of the nearby condominium building at 724 12th Street.
Sophia Steak’s original plans submitted to the Village called for a tent that would be enclosed on the north and west sides with an expected occupancy of approximately 80 diners. The restaurant plans also included string lighting and emergency exit lighting on the tent’s interior, a speaker used to provide music for guests and a policy of accepting reservations no later than 8:30 p.m.
Several nearby residents authored written communications to the village expressing displeasure with the restaurant’s plan, citing concerns relating to proximity, noise, privacy and operation hours.
Village Manager Michael Braiman said his staff spent several days working with Sophia Steak to refine its application as much as possible to limit the impact on the neighbors. The restaurant did submit an amended application that limited the operating hours to no later than 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and no later than 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, he said.
“From a staff perspective, we see that as a fairly significant change,” he said. “The previous application had stated that the last reservation would be taken at 8:30 p.m. on all days. So now there’s a very clear end time, which makes enforcement of that much easier from the village staff perspective. I think it really does limit the impact to the neighbors as best as we can.”
Braiman added Sophia Steak has been cooperative throughout the process and that he anticipates the restaurant will work well with any neighbors to address concerns that may arise.
The proposals from Valley Lodge Tavern and Pescadero received less contention, predominantly because their plans involved tents where their current outdoor seating is located, outside their front doors and facing the intersection of Wilmette and Central avenues.
The approximate dimensions of Pescadero’s proposed tent are 32 feet long by 16 feet wide, according to village documents. Sides of the tent will be enclosed and its interior will have string lighting and emergency exit lighting. The expected occupancy of the tent will be 24 people.
Valley Lodge’s tent has a proposed dimension of 16 feet squared, according to its proposal submitted to the village. As proposed, the sides of the tent will be enclosed and string and emergency exit lighting will be installed. The expected occupancy of the tent will be 16 people.
Convito Cafe plans to maintain its current tent as a dining area until Nov. 30. The approximate dimensions of the tent are 56 feet in length by 16 feet in depth, with seating for 56 people, per village documents.
Before the approval of the permit applications, Wilmette Village President Bob Bielinski assured concerned residents that the board hears their concerns and is working to provide a fair balance for all parties involved.
Several trustees also inquired about safety requirements and guidelines for the potential outdoor tents.
Braiman told The Record that Wilmette plans to follow health and safety guidelines and regulations for outdoor dining structures provided by the Illinois Department of Public Health. He added that as soon as village staff has those rules promulgated from the state, they’ll make sure to communicate them to the applicants.
Permits for outdoor coverings will not be approved unless they meet the established public health and safety requirements and are in compliance with fire and safety measurements.
Village officials anticipate they’ll likely receive more tent-permit applications in the near future.
“I do think that is likely, and we hope that is the case,” Braiman said. “We want to encourage our restaurants to do everything that they can to try and battle through the pandemic here. And if we can be as flexible as possible, within reason, and make sure that it’s respectful of neighbors to the greatest degree that we can, we certainly want to support more outdoor dining and more table service.”
Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.