photo credit: Matthew Gilson
Are your bills paid regularly, and on time?
Do you avoid spoilers for movies and TV shows?
Do you understand that princesses don’t actually live in the castle at Disney World?
Can you accept that an expensive dinner doesn’t have to be a Serious Dinner?
If you answered “yes” to all four of these questions, then you’re a good candidate for dinner at Alinea. And we’ll walk you through why:
First, as you may already know, Alinea is expensive. There are three dinner options - the Salon, the Gallery, and the Kitchen Table - at different price points that fluctuate, but generally range from $205-$395. That’s a lot of money, but if you’re looking to go all-out on dinner, this is where to do it. The middle level (the Gallery, and the experience we’re reviewing here) is 16-18 courses starting at $295 per person, and includes plenty of the “experimental moments” (a.k.a. over-the-top sh*t) that set Alinea apart from every other restaurant you’ve probably ever been to. Just think of planning a dinner here as buying non-refundable tickets to a show.
That takes us to our second question: Can you stay away from spoilers? Your level of enjoyment at Alinea is directly linked to how much you’re able to keep stuff a surprise. This means not searching Instagram for pictures, asking your coworker who went there four months ago all about it, or reading detailed reviews - which is why we’re avoiding specifics in this one. For example, we’re not going to tell you what’s up with the elaborate table setting at the beginning of your meal, or why they keep the hot pot on the table after you’re done eating. It’s like the ending of Infinity War: the less you know beforehand, the more effective it is. Believe us when we say that the surprise is worth it.
The third question regarding Disney and its princesses is important, so hear us out. When you were four years old and went to Disney World, you probably believed you were meeting the real-life Cinderella who lived in a functioning magical castle. But then you went back as a 34-year-old and realized that it’s just a theme park full of human beings… in costumes… using the bathroom. Because there are limits to what any place in the real world can achieve. This is also true of Alinea. No other restaurant in Chicago has so much expectation attached to it, but as long as you’re not delusional about the boundaries of space and time, you’ll be impressed. And not just with the “experience” side of things - because hijinks aside, this place just serves fantastic food, from the molecular gastronomy stuff that made it famous (like an edible balloon for dessert) to surprisingly straightforward fine dining dishes like wagyu carved tableside. The meal progression makes sense, the cooking techniques are creative, everything looks fantastic, and you’re going to leave stuffed.
Our fourth and final question was about Serious Dinners. And we’ll start by saying there’s a lot about Alinea that is serious. It’s seriously expensive, and clearly a serious amount of detail, planning, and coordination goes into every element of your meal. But at the same time, this is not a Serious Dinner. The entire experience is whimsical, and parts of it are intentionally absurd. The servers and cooks are in on it - whether they’re slapping a fire out with juniper branches, capering around a fog machine, or explaining how to avoid getting that edible balloon stuck in your hair. Plus, they’re genuinely funny - as in cracking jokes while presenting you with one of the fanciest things you’ve likely ever eaten. So if spending a potential car payment on a dinner that could be characterized as kind-of-silly bothers you, this place is not a smart choice for your money. But if laughing while you eat incredible food sounds like something you want to do, go ahead and book your table.
A meal at Alinea is the best overall dining experience you can have in Chicago. You can count on eating some of the tastiest, most interesting food you’ve ever encountered here, and you’ll leave feeling more excited about your dinner than a human being really should. So if you answered “yes” to all four of our questions above, or are willing to take a leap of faith, you should start looking for reservations as soon as you’re done reading this paragraph. The world expects a lot of Alinea, and without taking itself too seriously, it delivers.
The food at Alinea is fun, playful, and delicious. If you want to know more, happy Googling. But we warned you. Don’t do it.