Part of ‘Libation Trail,’ Lake County venues stay afloat with creative offerings

Lack of in-person dining taking toll on restaurants, bars in area

WAUCONDA – Side Lot Brewery in Wauconda is surviving the pandemic one day – and dome – at a time.

New delivery options, curbside pickup and wines grown from local vines are keeping Vigneto del Bino Winery in Antioch alive.

The businesses, along with other breweries, wineries, pubs and restaurants throughout Lake County, are doing what they can to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and attract customers this winter.

With dining inside restaurants on hiatus because of state restrictions, it’s a constant struggle.

Many are finding creative ways to stay afloat. Outdoor offerings, such as domes, fire pits and heated tents, as well as virtual tastings, happy hour Zoom calls and to-go options are helping.

So are promotions such as the Lake County Libation Trail hosted by Visit Lake County. In its fifth year, the trail has transformed a bit this year, but it remains a unifier of many of the area’s food and beverage businesses.

“We’ve managed to keep it active,” said John Maguire, business and community development manager for Visit Lake County. “We’re trying to do everything we can to keep people knowledgeable of the venues we have in the county and support them.”

Through its website,, Visit Lake County provides a “To-Go” listing of takeout, curbside and delivery options for food and beverages.

Promoted on the website, the Libation Trail includes 24 stops in Lake County, with six more expected this year. Visitors can enjoy locally grown, crafted and distilled adult beverages.

Through a mobile platform offered via the website, Visit Lake County encourages patrons to take part in a check-in challenge to win prizes.

The organization also promotes a Lake County Libation of the Month, and has deemed November as Libation Trail Month.

The businesses involved stretch throughout Lake County and feature award-winning adult beverages, including beer, wine, vodka and whiskey.

“They’re a really close-knit group,” Maguire said. “Most of them know each other. They visit each other. They’re really supportive of each other. … I think they all recognize what’s good for the reputation of Lake County helps everyone. They’re very cooperative. It’s unique just because it’s such a strong niche for Lake County.”

Side Lot Brewery in Wauconda, a stop on the Libation Trail, has found salvation this winter with its seven domes. Limited to six people at a time, the domes zip up similar to tents. Each dome includes space heaters, air purifiers and vents, and are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between seatings, Side Lot Brewery owner Phil Castello said.

Dome reservations at are required. There is a reservation fee.

“This is the only way we can stay open,” Castello said.

Customers are encouraged to dress warmly based on the weather. Customers are able to scan the menu with their phones and activate a red light when they need service.

For an upgrade, customers can sit in a larger dome featuring a tabletop fire pit.

Recent snow has added a wintry scenic touch to the experience, Castello said.

Castello ordered the domes in late June, knowing he’d likely need creative options to keep his customers during the winter. Right now, nearly all of Side Lot Brewery’s business revolves around the domes, he said.

“We’re lucky to have an outdoor space to begin with,” he said. “There’s really nowhere else to go otherwise.”

Side Lot Brewery’s carryout and delivery business boomed when the pandemic began in March, Castello said, but dipped quite a bit in June and July when outdoor seating was available.

He fears winter will be tough for all businesses.

“This is really going to be the test, between now and March, of hanging out and real survival,” he said.

With a tasting room, gift shop and 2,300 grapevines on 10 acres in Antioch, Vigneto del Bino Winery features at least 900 varieties of wine, as well as fudge made with the wine. Since the pandemic, the winery has shifted to deliveries and is now offering out-of-state shipments and curbside pickup by loyal customers.

Owner Deb Trombino has gradually introduced new wines and has hosted promotions such as Wine for a Cause. Each weekend, she donated 20% of sales to a chosen charity.

“It’s all worked out as best as it can,” she said. “At this time of year, we’re kind of in limbo.”

She’s hoping business will pick up in February and she’ll eventually be able to again host larger events, such as her annual grape harvest where customers are encouraged to stomp on the grapes.

A stop on the Lake County Libation Trail, the winery has been able to have small events, such as a virtual happy hour. Sticking together with other small businesses, Trombino said, has helped.

“We kind of promote each other, which is a really good thing,” she said. “Obviously, we’re all about shop local, shop small. That’s sort of what the Libation Trail is all about.”