Memorial Day is the official kickoff to summer when Illinoisans can temporarily forget polar vortexes and revel in all the sunshine finally coming our way. The holiday weekend puts the extra day off to good use, packed with barbecues, fireworks and a plethora of brews that has everyone in celebration mode.
To add to these already packed festivities is the opening of Café Alejo (aka The Boathouse Café) in Chicago’s thriving summer spot of Humboldt Park. The restaurant, located inside one of the park’s boathouses, is the brainchild of local resident and co-owner Erica Serrano. She came up with the idea after training for marathons in the park every summer. “I always wanted to have my own restaurant, and after running past the boathouse so many times throughout the years, one day a light bulb turned on in my head,” she says. “I thought, what a perfect space for a café.”
The roughly 3,300-square-foot space will seat about 30 inside and 130 on a large, umbrella-covered patio overlooking the park’s lagoons and with fantastic views of the city. Serrano is hoping to install a fire pit in coming months as well as a stage area for live music. While the menu is to be announced, patrons will be able to enjoy fresh juices, an array of soups, salads and sandwiches, brunch specials and coffee and alcohol, all of which excites Serrano. “I love to serve people [with] anything that puts a smile on someone’s face,” she says.
That same sunny disposition awaits groups at these additional alfresco hot spots. From a German beer garden to a beautiful rooftop space, a “backyard” patio and sidewalk bistro, there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy the warm sun—and even better eats—this summer.
Marion Street Cheese Market
While beers and brats are great, sometimes there’s nothing better during summer than wine and cheese pairings. For those days, this New American restaurant/market combo located in Oak Park, just west of downtown Chicago, will fit the bill.
Helmed by Executive Chef Bret Bohning, the menu features large and small plates perfect for sharing. Starters include the mussel pot and gouda cheese lollipops, while entrée portions hone in on tasty items like duck confit and hanger steak. Salads, soup bowls and artisan mac ‘n’ cheese round out the menu.
Outdoor events can offer a selection of cheese flights and wine and beer and are hosted on the covered patio, which can accommodate groups up to 35. Alfresco fetes can be scheduled from late spring to late fall, with events in the cooler months possible thanks to the addition of space heaters.
“If people are looking for a casually elegant party, the patio at Marion Street Cheese Market is a perfect space for mingling, chatting and nibbling on delicious food,” says Sara Lindsay, events manager, noting that events can be custom-built and often feature the restaurant’s accompanying live jazz program. “It’s less of a meal and more of a night out.”
It may be summer but every day is Oktoberfest at Hofbräuhaus, which just celebrated its second year at Rosemont’s flagship MB Financial Park playground. As the first and only German microbrewery, beer hall and restaurant in the Chicago area, the massive 26,000-square-foot spot is the real deal, importing the same brewing method used 400 years ago in Munich. Guests can sip on a variety of ales in the heated beer garden patio, which seats 200 and is open from the second week of September through the third or fourth week of October, or enjoy the party atmosphere inside with daily entertainment. The restaurant itself can host year-round groups from 10 to 550, with a private room that can seat 300 guests.
Food options include buffet setups, a family-style menu, limited plated dinner menus and a plethora of appetizers. As well, a casual Hoppy Hour menu just debuted this year, which pairs the restaurant’s brews with small bites such as pretzel fondue and barbecue beef sliders. Other menu highlights—all listed in German—include Münchner Schweinebraten (Munich pork roast) and Münchner Weisswürte (Munich’s famous white sausage) and the staple item, sauerkraut.
“Hof bräuhaus Chicago is a unique experience with authentic German cuisine, live nightly entertainment and excellent service,” says Laurel Clark, event sales manager. “With lively sing-alongs, dancing in the aisles and wonderful hospitality, the venue captures Munich’s legendary Gemütlichkeit—a friendly, relaxed atmosphere—making it the perfect place to kick back and have fun.”
The Duck Inn
As the newest addition to Rockit Ranch’s portfolio, The Duck Inn serves up serious cuisine in a neighborhood setting. The retro-styled supper club was inspired by the long family legacy of chef Kevin Hickey, formerly of the Four Seasons, and is housed in a pre-Prohibition-era tavern.
Bowing to its name, The Duck Inn does feature duck as a main player on the menu, with offerings such as Hickey’s award-winning duck fat dog and rotisserie duck for two, but unexpected twists pop up such as Korean-inspired rice cake fingers and pickle and beer- brined chicken. Customized group menus are available for seated dinners in the main dining room that holds 20 to 40 guests; receptions in the bar can host 30 to 50 people. A full-venue buyout is also available.
The patio—nicknamed “the backyard” by those at the restaurant—is sunk down 5 feet from street level and features 6-foot-tall fences decorated with light bulb strands and a garden inside, which services the restaurant with vegetables and herbs.
“[It’s] a very unique, outdoor space,” says Hickey. “We have the flexibility and versatility to create any kind of event.” And he means it.
Options run the gamut from movie nights to backyard barbecues and pig roasts. But the biggest treat is the Bathtub Punch—a punch served in an actual bathtub with a rubber duck frozen in an oversized ice cube. Outdoor events can be scheduled from April through September.
Tanta Cocina Peruana
If you’re looking for a melting pot of styles, head to Tanta, one of the sole authentic Peruvian restaurants in the city limits. It’s the vision of famed Latin American chef Gastón Acurio— only his third restaurant in the U.S.—that takes diners on a culinary tour of the Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Italian flavors that influence Peruvian cuisine. Dishes are mostly shared and range from fresh seafood ceviches and Japanese-influenced Niguiris Nikei to Antichucos street-style skewers made with beef heart, chicken or octopus and entrées like the Chaufa Aeropuerta, a pork fried rice with shrimp tortilla and spicy garlic.
Much like Tanta’s food, the scenic rooftop with sweeping views of downtown is not to be missed. The rooftop itself can host 90 for reception-style events and 140 guests when combined with an attached private dining room. A retractable roof, which is in the process of being installed, allows for year-round fetes as well. “I feel we offer a truly one-of-a-kind experience in the Chicago area,” says Lucy Kendall, event manager. “So many people host events with us because they are looking for something outside of the box and want to showcase great food and drinks with ingredients you can’t find anywhere else.”