Was it worth it? That’s what you want to know, isn’t it. That seems to be what everyone wants to know. Was it worth the months of jockeying for a table, $250 per person ($500+ all-in with a wine pairing, tax, and tip), and 3+ hours of our lives for one meal. Let's be clear, we aren't people who think gourmet and fancy automatically makes a restaurant great, and we aren't looking to drop money like this on a regular basis - $500 for one dinner is absurd no matter who you are. But the culinary spectacle performed by the team at Alinea is so unique, so mesmerizing, and so delicious that it left us with a childlike wonder that we haven’t felt in a while.
Alinea is located on an unassuming stretch of Halsted, and upon entering you’re greeted by a red lit hallway that feels like a portal to an otherworldly place, or maybe a European club. Two silver doors whip open, and you cross the threshold to… a surprisingly normal-looking restaurant with shockingly bright lights and a relatively normal-looking group of people. Alinea lets the food speak for itself.
The entire meal consists of 18-22 small courses that together are best described as table theater. Your reactions will be evenly divided between “that was the most incredible thing I’ve eaten yet” and “holy shit what just happened.” Balloons made of apples that make you giggle like children as you suck out helium, hanging decorations that transform into ingredients, and things you didn’t even know existed like briny goose barnacles and wasabi corn on the cob. The surprises are entertaining, but the food itself is unbelievable. There’s no theatrics for the sake of theatrics.
It’s OK if you’re intimidated by Alinea, we were too. We expected to feel like con artists sitting in the dining room, but the staff makes the meal accessible, an incredible feat for a place like this. They are as much a part of your dining experience as your fellow diners, and they’re witty, knowledgeable, and slightly sassy. At one point they threatened to bring out a wine bong after we fell behind on the pairings. And yes, you should get the wine pairing. You might never come back, and the wine portions are hefty so you’ll get your money’s worth.
No, it’s not cheap. Yes, dinner for two could cover a good portion of a month's rent. But if you appreciate food, do anything and everything to find your way to Alinea, if only once.
Part of the fun of this meal is the unexpected surprises, and for that reason we won’t give you the exact play-by-play. We’ll let you in on a few of our favorite bites, but the rest is up to you to find out for yourself.
The first course is a doozy and sets the tone for the night. There are three small bites reminiscent of Spanish food. There’s a ham and manchego bite, a briney jelly of purified anchovies, olives, and chili peppers, plus a take on patatas bravas - bless those brave potatoes. Sounds simple on paper. It’s not.
It’s the one you’ve seen on Instagram. Each person gets a balloon made of apples and filled with helium. It’s silly and sweet, and you can’t help but laugh as you sing like a munchkin.
The most memorable course from the meal. A bowl of cold potato soup has a fried potato balancing atop that bursts with hot truffle as you slide the potato ball into the soup. Take it down in one bite.
The chef equivalent of Jackson Pollock comes out to decorate your tarp-covered table for dessert. Dollops of this, sugary sauces of that, sweet bites and marshmallows and banana and a big ball of something letting off cold steam, all covered in glitter. Voila! It’s sincerely beautiful, and then you clean it up with your mouth like a zamboni.