Located in Lincoln Park, Alinea has been a fine-dining mainstay in Chicago since its opening in 2005. Chef Grant Achatz’s three-Michelin-starred modern American restaurant has been helmed as the World’s Best Restaurant on numerous occasions (it’s currently at #34) and has pioneered the molecular gastronomy movement in the U.S. While it continues to push the boundaries of a meal with dishes that are fun, emotional, provocative, and blurring the lines between art and food, is it worth the hype?
Who is Grant Achatz?
Grant Achatz is the chef at Alinea, which is co-owned byrestaurateur Nick Kokonas (also the founder and CEO of Tock, a robust reservation, guest, and table management system for businesses). The name Alinea means “the beginning of a new train of thought,” and is symbolic of Achatz’s goal to change and upend expectations. Achatz is known for using modern techniques to create avant-garde tasting menus that are theatrical in their presentation. Dishes are served on rolled out pieces of cloth and scented pillows rather than on plates, and strawberries become tomatoes. “I want the guests to have a sense of wonderment,” Achatz says of the creative menu at Alinea.
In 2007, Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer. He underwent experimental treatments that were effective in saving his life, but as a result, the chef lost his sense of taste for a time. Achatz also released a cookbook in 2008 that showcased Alinea’s cuisine, with more than 100 dishes (totaling 600 recipes).
“Why do you have to eat with a fork or a spoon, and why does it have to be served in a plate or a bowl? Why can’t we come up with something new? Is every element of the restaurant we try to break down and go the best way it could exist, or is there a better version? Rules? There is no rule. Do whatever you want.”
What is the restaurant’s vibe?
Alinea had a total makeover before its 10thanniversary in 2016, shuttering the wildly successful restaurant for four months and reopening in 2017 with a clean and bright look, a new dining experience, and three different menus (The Kitchen Table, The Gallery Menu, and The Salon Menu).
Upon my arrival to the restaurant, I headed into an elegant room with painted Plexiglas panels, created by the Chicago gallery owner and artist Thomas Masters and suspended from the coffered ceiling, and a cascading LED chandelier hanging above the curved staircase leading to the Salon level.
The staff was remarkably knowledgeable, attentive and engaged, bringing both humor and personality to the meal. My table, unfortunately, witnessed an incident where a waiter had incorrectly identified the ingredients in one of our courses—needless to say, we never saw him again. Ouch!
Does it taste as good as it looks?
Alinea is one of only 13 restaurants in the U.S. to be awarded three stars by Michelin, which is the pinnacle of professionalism, hospitality, and creativity. The accolades have never stopped rolling in, and the restaurant was featured on season two of Netflix’s acclaimed documentary “Chef’s Table.” There’s nothing typical about Alinea’s food, and my (vegetarian) menu was no different. Half of the people at my table were vegetarian, and the other half were not; however, the staff was able to make accommodations while making the fewest number of changes possible. We were able to enjoy the menu as much as our non-vegetarian counterparts, so the integrity of the experience was not compromised. We also had a crossword puzzle sitting at the end of our table, which was later revealed to be our menu.
Our menu consisted of the following courses:
- White | Asparagus, Almond, Basil
- Kaeng | Ginger, Mustard, Chili
- Glow | Lemongrass
- Ink | Squash, Scallion, Black lime
- Stem | Morel, Oxalis, Goat Butter
- Tail | Parsnip, Trumpet Royale, Huckleberry
- Branch | Maitake, Juniper, Acorn
- Tea | Matsutake, Lemon, Thyme
- Rossini | Maitake, Frites, Mayonnaise
- Ear | Woodear, Truffle
- Transition | Yam, Délice, Apricot
- Wood | Hoja Santa, Tamarind, Chocolate
- Corn | Popped, Caramel, Liquid
- Balloon | Helium, Green Apple
“People like to think the creative process is romantic. The artist drifts to sleep at night, to be awakened by the subliminal echoes of his or her next brilliant idea. The truth, for me at least, is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study.”
How much does it cost?
The Salon, located on the restaurant’s second floor, will run you $205 to $275 for a 10-14 course tasting menu. The Gallery, on the ground floor beside the kitchen, offers an extended menu of 16 to 18 courses at $295 to $360 that combines fine dining with experimental moments. Finally, The Kitchen Table is a glassed-in six-top commitment at $395, which, as its name suggests, claims a 144-square-foot corner nook in Alinea’s kitchen, where guests try 16 to 30 courses, depending on the eve. Wine pairings with all meals come at an additional cost.
Is Alinea worth the hype?
Dinner at Alinea is expensive (it has been listed as one of the most expensive restaurants in the U.S.) and is recommended for special occasions, but I can assure you that this restaurant will create a lasting impression. Dining here is partly theater and pure pleasure—an experience. Air-filled balloons are edible, senses of taste, touch, smell are tested, mental and emotional boundaries are pushed. The menu, an ever-shifting chameleon, is a reflection of the wizards in the kitchen, led by Achatz himself—no two meals are ever alike.
Achatz once said that he’d tear the space apart every year if he could because his restaurant is a shark that devours ideas, and if it doesn’t keep swimming and eating, it’ll die. He wanted to see if his team could do it all over again. They have.
P.S. Thanks to my friends Sonia Jhurani and Rishi Chand for the indulgent treat!
Tip: Alinea books up quickly and does not accept walk-in customers. Tickets are sold two months in advance, and usually, they are released around the 15th of the month at 11 a.m. CST.
Location: Lincoln Park
Hours: Thurs–Mon: 5 p.m.–10 p.m. | Tues & Wed: 5 p.m.–9 p.m.
Drinks: Wine, Cocktails
Parking: Valet parking for $14
Have you been to Alinea? What were your thoughts? Share them in the comments!
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