I first went to Alinea in Chicago for my birthday in 2009, and I loved the experience. From each course served to the service and wine selection, although I cannot remember exact details, I do remember being thoroughly impressed with the caliber of food and service. It certainly felt and tasted like what would become the 3-star Michelin gem, when the famed guide finally made its way to Chicago two years later. This last visit however, (meh) maybe not so much. The only reason perhaps to notice a difference is because I had visited Grant Achatz gig many years back, before all the hype and media attention came into play. Since then, those with an attention to detail and high expectations can admit, Alinea seems to be losing a lot of its charm. To begin, you can no longer call in advance to make a reservation. You have to wait around for a lottery of tickets to be released, of which you have no information on the date regarding their release. I originally wanted to come here for my birthday, or Valentine’s Day two days later, but that didn’t happen since, while I was waiting around for tickets to be released, I was travelling the internet-deprived center of Sri Lanka. I didn’t have the time or resources to wait around in front of a computer monitoring the possible release of these tickets. It also infuriated me that when I called to explain the situation, they conveniently suggest I like their Facebook page, and follow them on twitter, since they hold a certain amount of tickets for all days and announce them through these social media a couple of days before a date. Not only is this a ploy to sneakily trap you into offering support and a following for their restaurant, but it also undermines the value of your time versus the kitchen and chef’s time. Um, okay, whatever.
Being the blatant consumer that I am, and keen on going back to see what all the fuss was about, I obliged, and finally fit it in one Saturday that I’d be back home in Chicago at 9:30 in the evening on a Saturday. So ticket situation a huge pain in my ass, and the experience that followed further expanded on these mixed feelings. The food, again, blew me away with the innovative presentation, and excellent flavor profiles, not to mention their AMAZING selection of wine pairings. Truly remarkable taste in wines, I must admit. But low and behold caveat number 2. Did I mention that when you book the tickets, you also pay a compulsory 20% service charge? As in, you have no choice in the matter. You pay for the quality of service ahead of time. Okay, now we all remember that guy named Adam Smith whose talk of the invisible hand driving the market in a more or less ‘just’ fashion by virtue of people pursuing their own self interests? Well that doesn’t exist at Alinea. How can you guarantee the quality of service when it’s not incentivized for the servers? Don’t get me wrong, the service was not terrible, but it wasn’t exceptional either. And for a $1,000 meal between two people, it needs to be. The servers were adequate, but at times, not forthcoming about the information on how to eat the food. Also at the end with the dessert, no one came over to explain what we were eating! This beyond annoyed me, as I find it unacceptable that such a big detail should go unnoticed. These two big inconveniences, the ticket situation, and feeling of less than excellent service brings the future of Alinea, in my mind, to question. Will this continue to be one of the best places to eat on planet earth? Weeelllllll- I wouldn’t count on it. It seems to me like the potential is there, but after so much media frenzy and praise, this place may just be resting on its laurels. Sure go to Alinea if you don’t mind playing Russian roulette with your mullah, but be aware of all the work you’ll be putting in on your end. Almost takes a lot of the charm away with the gimmicky ticket situation and forced service charge, a counterfactual for a restaurant at this price point for sure. Last time I checked, you expend that amount of money not just for the quality of a product, but also for the experience as a whole. This experience left a lot to be desired, and almost made it hurt to spend that amount of cash. Some of my personal favorites in Chicago could fair much better, and not leave you wondering if it was all worth it in the end. If you’d like to know what those are, just ask!