Woodstock eateries see outdoor dining success again, excited for Benton Street improvements

‘With the bars having the cohesive outdoor space, hopefully it will gain in popularity over the years,’ one restaurant owner says

Wes Dickson, an owner of the Oliver’s sports bar in downtown Woodstock, is already thinking about what tailgate-like events ahead of NFL Sunday kickoffs could look like.

The restaurant has a patio space on the section of Benton Street that the city closed off to cars again in May to facilitate outdoor dining, one change from the COVID-19 pandemic that was met with enthusiasm.

But now that more sectors of the economy are ramping up to their pre-pandemic availabilities, interest in dining on Oliver’s strip of Benton this summer has dropped a bit compared to last year, Dickson said.

His restaurant’s interior is its main appeal, with a series of huge flatscreen TVs around the bar and throughout the space able to show any combination of sporting event broadcasts at one time, he said. And so Dickson and his fellow restaurant owners are discussing having an outdoor viewing option for football games.

He and other restaurant owners in the area are excited for the prospects the future holds for the outdoor space, and the leaders of the separate restaurants there have already discussed putting together pre-game and viewing events on NFL Sundays.

The city earlier this year agreed to make the closure of Benton to vehicles an annual occurrence from May through October so that the restaurants facing the road can use it as an outdoor space to serve patrons. Other towns such as Crystal Lake and Cary have also been taking a look at their outdoor dining options.

“Last year since there was no other option, it was a lot more popular outdoors,” Dickson said. “More people in Woodstock need to know the outdoor space is open to the public. With the bars having the cohesive outdoor space, hopefully it will gain in popularity over the years.”

A transformation has already taken place on Benton, compared to about five or six years ago, according to Dickson and Dan Hart, the owner of the D.C. Cobbs brand, which plays a part in running the restaurant of that name on Benton.

“I think a lot of people have a bad outlook on Benton because it attracts a [late night] crowd of people,” Dickson said.

While city officials never considered the area rundown or dangerous, Woodstock Mayor Mike Turner confirmed he saw potential for the spot years ago, and, pre-pandemic, urged the creation of the city’s boardwalk program, which saw the construction of wooden platforms Benton Street bars and restaurants placed in parking spots in front of their businesses to have an outdoor space to serve patrons.

“Five or six years ago, Benton Street was a really rough area,” Hart said.

But with private investment by people like Mark Bezik, the owner of The Cabin and Main Street Tap, into sprucing up properties, as well as the city’s commitment to fostering outdoor dining with the boardwalks, and, more recently, hanging ambient lighting above the tables on the street, a transformation has taken place.

“Originally they had us use the pods out there and that was great but super limited on seating,” Hart said.

With the introduction of the full street closure on Benton, which Turner encouraged, D.C. Cobbs had a record month of sales in June, Hart said.

“I think a big part of that is the city helping out,” Hart said, adding D.C. Cobbs employs about 30% more people in the summer than in the winter due, in part, to the outdoor seating expansion.

Beyond the closure and the investments so far, the city also plans on adding overhead shades for the area in the form of sails. Plus, the city is making loans available to the eating and drinking establishments to buy outdoor furniture.

This year those outside seating products were hard to come by due to an industry shortage. Some businesses were told new outdoor chairs and tables would become available only at the beginning of fall.

But business owners said they hope the new furniture is here in time for the start of next year’s outdoor dining season.

And the city is in the process of helping to fund upgrades to a large building across the street from the bars, 220 N. Benton St., which is home to several businesses.

The city has recently agreed to move forward improvements partially funded by a tax increment financing district agreement to upgrade that property’s facades, vestibule and windows, which currently are boarded up on Benton.

The city agreed to tweak its agreement with the property owner to get the improvements under way this year, after the owner expressed it may have difficulties starting under the previous arrangement because of COVID-19, city Economic Development Director Garrett Anderson said.

“We expect to be in the full upgraded version of Benton by next year,” Turner said. “I’m vested in the ideas coming from those businesses to do things that serve their customers, create a great environment and something really cool in Woodstock.”

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.