Executive Chef Daniel Kelly with Lincoln Park Zoo spent much of his culinary career with Hyatt, but says the clientele at his current employer are much easier to please. “I used to deal with angry business travelers all day,” he says (no offense, meeting planners). Preparing and serving delighted guests around the lush grounds of Lincoln Park Zoo has proved a refreshing change of pace. “No one comes to the zoo mad.”
They certainly won’t leave mad, either—at least not after tasting the (unexpectedly amazing) food. Adding to the ambience are the zoo’s beloved animals, of course, from the playful polar bear to the confident snow leopard, who stalks around his pen seemingly ready to pounce at any moment. Until the food carts roll by, that is—”he’s just a big ‘fraidy cat,” says Kelly.
When meeting in Chicago, take note of these three ways to host a memorable off-site event at Lincoln Park Zoo, a 10-minute drive from downtown.
1) An elegant dinner at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Cafe Brauer
There’s nothing new about Cafe Brauer, one of the zoo’s original buildings. Constructed in 1908, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning it can’t be altered. But that’s a good thing, for we wouldn’t change a thing about its stunning interiors. The second-floor Great Hall is flooded with light and flanked with tile mosaic and glass chandeliers, a complementary setting to an elegant plated dinner prepared by Kelly. Views of the Chicago skyline and the zoo landscape greet guests who venture out to the covered patios on both the north and south ends of the Hall. Cafe Brauer is often rented out two years in advance on the weekends for weddings, so meeting planners will find the most availability during weekday evenings. Cafe Brauer can hold between 225 and 300 guests depending on the configuration.
2) A lively reception with built-in entertainment in the Ape House
If you find it ironic to feast on heavy hors d’oeuvres like prime beef sliders topped with crispy onions in the presence of vegetarians, you’ll soon get over it. In the Ape House, you’ll find several troupes of gorillas and chimpanzees swinging from the treetops and their own mini ropes course—an entertainment sure to hold attendees’ goldfish-like attention spans longer than your average band or magician. These mesmerizing creatures consume more than 70 pounds of vegetables per troupe per day, from lettuce to radishes to bell peppers, prepared by the zoo’s nutrition team. Follow suit and incorporate one of Kelly’s zippy vegetarian appetizers into your menu, like crostini topped with goat cheese, pumpkin, dried cherries and walnuts.
One of the most interesting elements of holding an event here is the option to have the apes’ zookeeper on hand. She’s sure to keep the questions flowing, and by the time your guests leave, they’ll have an entirely new understanding of—and appreciation for—the shockingly human-like primates, which can live up to 50-plus years in captivity.
3) A moody, interactive cocktail hour in the Reptile and Small Mammal House
The juxtaposition of an open bar placed across the dimly lit room from a slithering viper, probably with his eye on the brush-tailed bettongs flitting about behind glass a few windows down, ahem, strikes you as odd, you’re not alone. However, once cocktails like mango Dark ‘n’ Stormies and cucumber gin fizzes start flowing, it becomes a lot more normal. A cocktail hour held in the Reptile and Small Mammal House, however, is anything but. Cuties like the Fennec fox will have the women wanting to stuff him in their purse to take home, while expressing mutual fears of reptiles like the African Rock python or the Aruba Island rattlesnake (who blends into the sand so well, you have to strain to see him) is sure to double as teambuilding for even the stiffest business groups.
A popular events option is to begin with cocktails, appetizers or a dinner in this space, then move attendees outside to engage with novelty carts. From hot dogs to the iconic Chicago popcorn mix, walking tacos, churros, ice cream and more, the carts can be customized for each group with food options and branding.