Last night, we dined at Alinea.
Depending on who you ask, Alinea is the best restaurant in the world. Or maybe #15 in the top 50. Or just a really, really amazing restaurant with 3 Michelin stars for six years running. There’s an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table about Grant Achatz. There’s a giant glossy coffee table book. And there are countless reviews, amateur and professional.
Achatz is a celebrity/genius/mad scientist.
Alinea is dining/theater/curated sensory overload.
It’s not just dedicated foodies and fine dining types that fawn over this restaurant. It’s creative folks on a shoestring budget and filthy rich consultants in glass skyscrapers. It’s Instagram stars and Yelp junkies who can name every highly anticipated opening in the city, but also middle managers at the Target HQ, looking forward to one special night in the Windy City.
There’s something about Alinea, beyond the allure of conventional fine dining, that captures the imagination.
Since we moved to Chicago, we’ve heard more and more about this culinary wonderland, the high temple of molecular gastronomy. A friend from college planned her trip to the city, months in advance, around a night at Alinea. A wealthy acquaintance from work goes every year with his family. Each time, they bring a different friend because the fun is in the novelty. Another friend stalks the company on social media, waiting for the next batch of tickets to be released. (Nightly showtimes – the equivalent of reservations – sell out within hours of being posted on their ticketing website.) Another friend, who has never expressed an interest in food, declares himself “obsessed with Alinea.”
Over time, the idea of dining at Alinea grew in our minds. Like many before us and many to come, it was an itch we had to scratch.
Finally, in December, we bit the bullet and dropped $816.18 on two tickets for The Gallery 16-course tasting menu, sans wine pairing. The Gallery is the second of three tiers of service, starting from the 12-course Salon and building up to the $3000, 22-course Kitchen Table for 6. Our excuse was a combination of both our birthdays in January and our anniversary in February.
In the interim, we decided we would stop eating out. We challenged ourselves in January, and again this coming February, to cook every meal at home, with the rare exception of social events (and those were constrained to a strict monthly budget.) The reasoning was three-fold:
- Finances: We don’t have that much money to spend on dining out. If we’re going to splurge on the big ones, we needed to make cuts in other areas.
- Science of Happiness: Fine dining is like a vacation: we’re investing a significant chunk of our income in a memorable experience. We wanted to savor the anticipation, which some studies suggest is a big contributor to enjoyment and overall happiness.
- Personal Values: I don’t want to participate in the large fraction of the restaurant industry that is driven by fetishization of food trends and blatant consumerism, which happens to be the fraction of the industry in our price range.
The last one is a relatively recent development in my personal philosophy. Since moving to Chicago, I’ve alternated between earnest excitement about the food scene and my growing discomfort with food-obsessed culture. The harder I tried to look the part – let me tell you about the best hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Edgewater – the less satisfied I felt with the superficiality of the role.
I’m not the only one beating this drum. Novelty-driven consumerist culture is killing culinary talent and closing reliably good eateries. Emerging food cities are doing the same thing, over and over again, fueling investment in a culinary bubble that’s about to burst. Everyone’s looking for the real deal: authentic, honest, fresh. We’re turning comfort foods into hipster cultural icons, then smashing them down again in this surreal landscape littered with gourmet burgers and Korean fusion tacos.
The whole thing is exhausting. At some point it stopped being about food and started being about the appearance of knowledge about food.
That’s not to disparage the work of innovative chefs who genuinely love their craft and the joy it brings to their customers. But the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t work out in favor of patronizing their restaurants given the current state of the industry. I have so much to learn from cooking at home and so much to gain from putting my disposable income into a retirement account, that it doesn’t really make sense to invest in restaurant meals.
That said – Alinea is absolutely worth the investment.