CITY HALL — The weather outside might still be frightful, but permit requests for sidewalk cafes are blooming like crocuses poking through the snow.
"This is what we call 'sidewalk cafe time,'" said April Branch, an aide to 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, who handles the public way aspects of the permits as chairman of the Council's Transportation Committee.
The committee handled no fewer than 339 permit requests posted by aldermen at this month's City Council meeting, meaning Chicago seems headed for another record year of dining al fresco.
While restaurants can apply anytime for a permit, the outdoor dining season begins March 1, with some restaurants — including Big Star in Wicker Park — opening their patios when temperatures climbed past 50 on Monday.
One of the requests approved this month was from the Little Goat Diner, 813 W. Randolph St., which opened late in 2012 and is now renewing its sidewalk cafe permit from last year.
A sidewalk cafe adds seats to a small restaurant, obviously, but its appeal goes far beyond that.
"Most important, after the winter we've had, Chicagoans like to enjoy the warm months as much as possible," said Ian Goldberg, vice president of the Boka Restaurant Group, which owns Stephanie Izard's Little Goat. "People just want to be outside in the summer."
Goldberg added that, more and more, it's about keeping up with other restaurants also offering al fresco dining, a concern for all the Boka restaurants.
The city has seen an 18 percent increase in permits for sidewalk cafes since 2010, according to Mika Stambaugh of the city's Department of Business Affairs, which processes the permits. The number of permits issued rose from 983 that year to top 1,000 in 2011 and on to 1,158 last year.
"Sidewalk cafes add to the vibrancy of any business and offer Chicago restaurants an opportunity to extend their services outdoors, offer customers an unique dining experience," Stambaugh said. "Chicago is a world-class city and a culinary destination with diverse foods representing our diverse neighborhoods. The city has embraced new concepts like food trucks in an effort to support small-business operators."
Stambaugh said the city has encouraged the expansion of sidewalk cafes through regular workshops on the application process, including ones in both January and February this year.
The city has a website explaining how a restaurant can request an application packet. According to Beale's office, a business can apply at any time of the year, but the permits cover a nine-month period from March 1 to Dec. 1 and have to be reapproved each year, at a minimum cost of $600 depending on the size and location of the sidewalk cafe.