Sidewalk Cafe Permits in the City of Chicago

Louis Greenebaum

Posted by Louis Greenebaum

Sidewalk cafes are common fixtures on city streets throughout warmer months. These sidewalk cafe permits grant restaurateurs the ability to expand seating temporarily into the sidewalk for a set amount of time, and require both City and aldermanic approvals before business may set up outdoor seating locations. 

What is a sidewalk cafe?

As defined by the City, a sidewalk cafe is an immobile retail food establishment on the public right-of-way, adjacent to a licensed retail food establishment or a food hall. A restaurant patron might not know the difference between an outdoor patio and a sidewalk cafe, as both are dining “al fresco”: though both require licenses to operate, outdoor patios are located on private property while sidewalk cafes are placed within the public way.

The City of Chicago places some restrictions on sidewalk cafes that may not be applicable to outdoor patios, which still apply despite program changes:

  • BYOB is prohibited within sidewalk cafes
  • Music, whether live or recorded, is prohibited within sidewalk cafes
  • Sidewalk cafes cannot operate earlier than 8:00 a.m. nor later than 12:00 a.m.
  • With some exceptions, dogs are allowed within sidewalk cafes

Chicago’s sidewalk cafe program allows restaurants to expand their footprint onto the public sidewalk to increase visibility and realize more income due to expanded seating capacity. Restaurateurs in the sidewalk cafe program have commented that having a cafe on the sidewalk is a better advertisement than a sign, and certain days of operation are extremely lucrative. For some restaurants, operating a cafe on St. Patrick's Day generates the most revenue for the cafe season, despite the fact it occurs before the summer months.

In 2012, the temperature on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago was 82 degrees - a huge boon for restaurants that had installed sidewalk cafes prior to the summer season. Forethought is required by restaurateurs to have a cafe in place for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Applicants typically need to turn in a completed sidewalk cafe application to their local Alderman early in the year for approval, and only 19.79% of sidewalk cafe permits in 2017 were issued ahead of St. Patrick’s Day. 

However, sidewalk cafe permits still need to be renewed annually. 

What is the process for acquiring a sidewalk cafe permit?

As mentioned above, all permits must be approved annually by both the local Alderman and the full Chicago City Council. There are several requirements to acquire a sidewalk cafe permit in the City, and restaurant owners must provide the following when applying for permit:

  • Retail food license
  • Proof of enough space for both passing pedestrians and seating on the sidewalk
  • Certificate of Insurance
  • Plan with seating chart
  • Photographs of seating location
  • Copy of business license certificates
  • Completed Sidewalk Café Permit Application

Any seating arrangements must comply with the following rules:

  • Boundaries must be installed for the purpose of separating pedestrians and dining patrons
  • Boundaries must be between 24 inches and 36 inches in height
  • Boundaries must allow for a minimum of 6 feet of unobstructed sidewalk space for passing pedestrians
  • Sidewalk café boundaries cannot be bolted to the sidewalk
  • No part of a sidewalk café is allowed to be elevated on a deck

Year-round operation is allowed if you comply with some additional regulations found here, but still requires annual renewal. 

Burnham Nationwide is experienced in obtaining business licenses and discrete permits, and our team is available to answer any questions you may have on obtaining or renewing sidewalk café permits or other business licenses with the City of Chicago for this year and beyond. 

Contact our Chicago Office


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