Let's take this outside

Phil Vettel recommends where to dine alfresco this summer

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The heat of summer 2013 took its sweet time arriving this year, even though summer officially began only last week. But as anyone in Chicago can tell you, the weather doesn't have to be ideal to make outdoor dining appealing.

Chicagoans, perhaps because they appreciate the fleeting nature of the outdoor season, perhaps because even a mild winter can be soul-crushing, embrace outdoor dining like a long-lost relative. Will we dine outside when it's 65 degrees out? Yes, we will. And if the place has a few electric heaters on hand, we'll consider lower temperatures.

Case in point: Dinner, some weeks ago, at Gather in Lincoln Square. It's a little too chilly for outdoor dining, but Gather's space has a canopy and heat lamps, so my friend and I are comfortable. In the course of an hour, we observe four parties enter the outdoor space, very tentatively checking out the comfort level, and each party contains at least one "c'mon, we can do this" member. One such hardy soul is overruled by his chilly companions, but the rest opt to stay outdoors. Nobody changes his mind later.

That's outdoor dining, Chicago-style.

My recommendations for outdoor spots in the city and suburbs are divided into new arrivals, places that offer views (always a selling point with the outdoor crowd) and places that have been favorites of mine for several years. I wouldn't eat at all these places in mid-60s weather, but with any luck that will be a moot point for the next three months.

What's new

The dec. Added to the Ritz-Carlton's offerings this year is a long open-air perch 12 stories above street level and equipped with cushioned rattan settees, canopies with heat lamps, cube-shaped cocktail tables that glow at night, a wavy roof-edge wall that shifts colors and an open glass fireplace adjacent to a reflective-steel sculpture called The Lenz (like a doughnut-shaped Bean). It's more futuristic than anything inside the Ritz-Carlton, and it's a very nice environment that has yet to be overrun by the excruciatingly hip crowd. The small-bites menu is more playful than satisfying, though you can always find sustenance at deca restaurant inside. 160 E. Pearson St., 312-573-5160.

Embeya. The very pretty sidewalk adjacent to this Vietnamese-inspired restaurant includes a 15-seat lounge and a series of white-umbrella-topped tables strung with lights. New for the summer are handcrafted cocktail snow cones and house-made sodas (spiking optional). A small-bites menu bridges the gap between lunch and dinner service, so you can always find something to nibble on here. 564 W. Randolph St., 312-612-5640.

Fountainhead. Ayn Rand might have made a fine restaurateur, recognizing the individual pursuit of happiness as the only reason people go to restaurants and positing 20 percent tips as a form of rational self-interest. But Fountainhead, the owners say, is not intended as an homage to the controversial author/philosopher, though I'd argue that chef Cleetus Friedman's food is responsible for a lot of individual happiness. The wood-on-wood rooftop patio, which boasts heat lamps along with wind and rain protection, has its own bar and tiny service kitchen; you can't get the full menu up here, but there are sriracha-kissed deviled eggs, a very nice meat and cheese board, salads, sandwiches and the ever-curious "bowl of pickled things." 1970 W. Montrose Ave., 773-697-8204.

Howells & Hood. I have to say, it was darn considerate of someone to open a restaurant that I could reach by elevator. Howells & Hood, which takes its name from the architects who designed Tribune Tower, sits in the tower alongside Pioneer Court, and though its courtside patio is huge (and includes a stand-alone bar), it's nearly always crowded; even in iffy weather, people will brave a seat here. The menu is a mix of pub-fare standards (including a very good signature burger) and more ambitious fare by Scott Walton (who did very good work at Markethouse Restaurant). The beverage program is highlighted by the beer list, which offers 114 beers on tap. TVs throughout the interior, and one in the outside bar, keep the sports-centric folks happy, but mostly it's a mix-and-mingle, young professional crowd here. 435 N. Michigan Ave., 312-262-5310.

Gather. The 40-seat covered patio behind this Lincoln Square newcomer is pretty and serene, abetted by privacy fencing and young trees, equipped with heaters for chilly nights and fans for sultry ones. Softly glowing oil lamps at each table make it romantic. The kitchen brings an artist's eye to preparations such as hamachi crudo with citrus segments and horizontal smears of citrus sauce, and crispy artichokes alongside a lazy river of artichoke puree. Definitely one for your short list. 4539 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-506-9300.

Little Market Brasserie. Last year's PT at the Talbott is now called Little Market Brasserie, an American-themed restaurant (overseen by Ryan Poli) attached to the Talbott Hotel. The sidewalk cafe out front features plenty of comfortable chairs and umbrella-topped tables, on a quiet stretch of Delaware Place. It's open from breakfast coffee to late-evening nightcaps. 10 E. Delaware Place, 312-640-8141.

The Local Chicago. Plants abound on the living-garden wall along the planters, walls and trellises of The Local's gorgeous sidewalk cafe, a great place to enjoy the all-American comfort-food menu, including the terrific prime meatloaf. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 198 E. Delaware Place, 312-280-8887.

Sumi Robata Bar. Gene Kato's tiny new Japanese restaurant nearly doubles when the outdoor space is available. Beautifully done with wood decking, shielded from the street by a row of arborvitae, the outdoor space offers umbrella-topped and candlelit tables, as well as a serene zen garden with a dancing flame. 702 N. Wells St., 312-988-7864.

For the view

Chicago Cut Steakhouse. It can be tough getting an outdoor table at some venues, but the riverside patio adjacent to this top-level steakhouse is so big, your odds aren't that bad. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 300 N. LaSalle St., 312-329-1800.

Drumbar. You can't get food at Drumbar (though you can eat sumptuously at Pelago Ristorante downstairs, or inexpensively at The Local Chicago across the street), but I include this rooftop cocktail lounge for its comfortable seating, dancing fire pits, glorious Streeterville view and the eye-opening cocktail program overseen by Craig Schoettler (ex-Aviary), which includes a liquid-nitrogen margarita, batched Moscow Mules dispensed from a kegerator and seasonal-flavor slush drinks. 201 E. Delaware Place, 312-943-5000.

Homestead on the Roof. This 80-seat rooftop restaurant by Greg Mohr and Scott Weiner — who also own downstairs Roots Handmade Pizza (through which you access the roof) and adjacent West Town Bakery — is a virtually perfect urban oasis. Dine under the stars (and strung Edison bulbs) at tables that wrap around the 1,000-square-foot garden, whose output finds its way onto chef Chris Curren's menu. Salads are excellent, especially the duck egg with asparagus and peas and the frika grain with hearts of palm, cucumbers and micro-greens, and the bountiful bread basket with various spreads is worth the $6 charge. Fettuccine with rabbit-pork meatballs and nettle pesto is considered a small dish on the menu, but it's plenty satisfying. And if the weather acts up, there's an indoor, air-conditioned space just steps away. 1924 W. Chicago Ave., 773-645-4949.

The J. Parker. Making its debut late last summer, J. Parker is a rooftop space crowning the 12-story Hotel Lincoln, offering dazzling views of Lincoln Park, Lake Michigan and a bit of downtown skyline. The people-watching is almost as good as the view, as the place attracts a dressy crowd. The menu, by Paul Virant (Perennial Virant restaurant is at ground level), offers such light bites as curried deviled eggs with chili oil and french fries served with pickled-ramp aioli, along with slightly more substantial fare. Low-set, cushioned furniture and a few highboy tables see to it that the views are good even from the middle of the space. Arrive early if you want to sit or even ride the elevator; the capacity does max out. 1816 N. Clark St., 312-254-4747.

Little Goat Diner. Stephanie Izard's "other" restaurant recently unveiled its rooftop patio, a second-story perch that offers views of downtown and some of the Randolph-street bustle. There's a small snacks menu for food, or you can get a sandwich at the downstairs bakery. The only catch is that the rooftop is already popular with the special-event crowd, so you might pull up to the restaurant to find the rooftop booked (Sunday, they say, is guaranteed to be open to all, weather permitting). Lunchtime may be your best bet. 820 W. Randolph St., 312-88-3455.

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