The Best New Event Spaces in Chicago

on Mar20

20 March 2018 | 10:30 am

Situated where Fullerton Avenue meets Lake Michigan, the brick-and-steel Theater on the Lake building is as much an icon of Chicago’s waterfront as the Edgewater Hotel. Now, thanks to a public-private partnership, a $7 million top-to-bottom renovation and a team that includes a culinary heavy hitter, Theater on the Lake has been reborn as a year-round, multiuse restaurant and event venue.

First, the fascinating history. Designed by Dwight Perkins—the same architect who designed Cafe Brauer and North Pond—the building originally served as a children’s tuberculosis sanitarium, with an open-air layout to allow for breezes that soothed patients. In the 1930s, it was converted into a dance hall, and in the 1950s, the park district purchased it to host plays, but the open-air structure necessitated summer-only use.

Theater on the Lake vintage photosSo when the newly formed Lakefront Hospitality Group won a 2016 bid to revamp the building, making it suitable for Chicago’s four seasons was one of the goals. According to general manager Susan Nicholl, the team started with an almost blank slate. “It was a shell of a building,” she says. They started from scratch with a new vision: an event venue, a lakefront patio, acres of green space and an all-day restaurant.

Theater on the Lake evening viewAddress: Lincoln Park/2401 N. Lake Shore Drive
Capacity: 12,500 inside, 6,000 outside
Square footage: 1,500
Cost: Rental rates start at $3,000.
Special features: Stage with modern lighting and sound, full-service restaurant and bar, outdoor lakefront patio, 6 acres of surrounding green space available for use.

The project was financed by Lakefront Hospitality, a private group that pays rent, with revenue shares of up to 5 percent during the course of its 15-year lease with the city of Chicago.

Tapping architecture firm Kaufman & O’Neil, the $7 million restoration included new plumbing, electrical and HVAC. The green overhead trusses were refortified and the structure enclosed with floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the lakefront and downtown.

To make the space event-friendly, the restaurant sits separate from a large, open party venue that can be divided into four spaces courtesy of moving walls. Each quadrant contains its own small enclave, which can be closed off or opened up and used as a bar. Outfitted with a new sound system, the stage remains, and a large, 80-person patio on the lake side allows for outdoor events with a view. Good news for party planners: 6 acres’ worth of surrounding green space is also available for rental. The restaurant will cater parties, though outside vendors are welcome, too. A new parking lot provides easier access to the venue.

Some big names give an assist. Locally sourced food devotee Cleetus Friedman (City Provisions, Fountainhead) helms the restaurant, and Joe Shanahan of the Metro will program live music.

However it’s used, the sweeping city views and lakefront access provide a memorable backdrop. “You have the lake, the skyline and Lake Shore Drive,” says Nicholl. “It’s iconic Chicago.”

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