How this restaurant outside Chicago is making space for diners with autism

The interior of Northbrook restaurant Prairie Grass Cafe with wooden chairs, white tablecloths, and exposed brick walls
Prairie Grass Cafe just outside of Chicago has sensory-friendly dining hours to be more inclusive toward people who are neurodiverse . Photo credit: Joon Ha/Prairie Grass Cafe

Prairie Grass Cafe has been a local favorite in the Chicago suburbs for nearly two decades, but a recent conversation with a friend made chef and owner Sarah Stegner want to do even more for her community.

The friend informed her about quiet hours at local museums that helped make the spaces more accommodating for people who are neurodiverse and may experience senses (vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste) more intensely.

After speaking with her friend, Stegner felt compelled to recreate a version of the museum hours at Prairie Grass Cafe. With busy dining rooms, long wait times, and noise from the kitchen, restaurants can be challenging spaces for people who have sensory sensitivity

Since earlier this year, Prairie Grass Cafe has been hosting sensory-friendly hours on select dates from 3:45 pm to 5 pm, just before dinner service begins.

The owner and chef of Northbrook restaurant Prairie Grass Cafe Sarah Stegner in a white chef’s coat
Prairie Grass Cafe chef and owner Sarag Stegner was inspired to introduce sensory-friendly dining hours at the restaurant from similar programs at local museums. Photo credit: Cindy Kurman

“I want to provide the chance for everyone to experience what our restaurant is,” Stegner says. “To enjoy the food we’re doing in an environment that is inclusive, supportive, and nurturing.”

What that means at the restaurant is that the team dims the lights, lowers the music, and seats fewer people to create a calmer environment for diners who might be more sensitive to their surroundings. Stegner also serves a slightly altered menu to remove dishes that take longer to prepare. 

Stegner worked with Hannah Rose Higdon of LifeGuides, an organization that promotes more inclusive workplaces—including ones that advocate for people with disabilities—while creating the program at Prairie Grass Cafe. “There need to be more places that individuals can visit to feel a sense of community and to feel included,” Higdon says.

A fried tilapia dish on a bed of greens with an orange sauce on top at Northbrook restaurant Prairie Grass Cafe
The sensory-friendly hours have dishes that don’t take as long to prepare, such as this tilapia. Photo credit: Monica Kass Rogers

Though there are inclusive restaurants around the country, Stegner hopes her restaurant will inspire even more to get on board. “I really hope other restaurants consider what they can do to make a difference, whatever that might look like for them,” she says. 

Stegner is inspired to keep the sensory-friendly hours going intermittently based on the reception she’s received so far. A boy with autism who dined at the restaurant recently turned to his family as they were leaving and asked if they could do that again. “To feel that we had provided him a chance to connect with his family and feel a part of this community—that’s our biggest goal,” Stegner says.

Prairie Grass Cafe is next hosting sensory-friendly dining hours on October 30, November 25, and December 30. 

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Nicole Schnitzler is a freelance writer and the founder of Doors Open Dishes, a nonprofit organization that partners with chefs to benefit programming for those with developmental disabilities.

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