As my hipster friends and I apparently start 75% of our stories, it all started when, “I heard this story on NPR…”  One evening last year I was paged into work and as I often do, I tuned the car radio to our local public radio station for my drive.  It was an episode of Fresh Air with Chef Grant Achatz.  I caught it in the middle, so I wasn’t totally clued in, but the more I learned about Chef Achatz and his Chicago restaurant Alinea, I became enthralled.  It was tough to turn off the car because I just wanted to keep listening.  Months passed, life happened, and I sort of forgot about the whole thing until I was browsing my list of books to read and came across Life on the Line, an autobiography of Achatz including his road to creating Alinea.  The book is a great read, but it left me needing to experience Alinea in real life.  I mean, it’s in Chicago – just a few hours away!

I stalked their website for weeks and finally, after much frantic refreshing of my screen I was able to score tickets.  (Yes, tickets – read their site for more details.)  My wonderful friend and art director Ryan and his amazing wife joined us for what turned out to be a nearly indescribable experience.  This happened just over a week ago and still, I’m struggling to find any words that could to justice to this meal.  Because it was so much more than a meal.  It is food, science, art, and passion all at once.  Even having read the book and expecting something spectacular, I feel my mind would never be capable of dreaming up that fantastic night.

We were buzzing with anticipation as we approached the restaurant.  Thankfully I did enough internet stalking to know just what the building looked like because it is not labeled.  There is no sign outside, just a few attendants with iPads waiting to check in dinner guests.  (Ryan was very keen on the place having no sign at all.)  Though the evening was pitch dark and pouring down rain, we received a warm greeting before we even entered.  We were told that we would be experiencing summer, ushered inside, and the big black door closed behind us.  I won’t say exactly what we encountered at that moment for anyone who may be dining there soon, but we were, quite immediately, surrounded by sensations of summer.  After being escorted to our table, the waitstaff greeted us and our fifteen course meal began.

I won’t give the specifics of any courses, not because I’m worried about spoilers (because it’s impossible to describe in a way that would truly spoil it), but because it could never do the evening justice.  Alinea must be experienced in person to fully grasp its brilliance.
Though I have shared a photo of the menu, this spoils nothing because the preparations and presentations are so inventive and sometimes just wild.  Each dish delighted us as a clear portrayal of the talent and creativity of the chefs.  Yes, the food was fancy in its complexity but for me, the overall feeling of the meal, at least to me, was playful and fun.  I had a giant grin plastered on my face from the very beginning and it only grew as the evening progressed.  Despite the elite status of the establishment, the environment was not stuffy in the least.  The waitstaff were jovial and down to earth.  The meal concluded with a dessert finale that was literally jaw-dropping for everyone at our table.  The perfect finale though was that we requested and were welcomed to visit the kitchen.  Due to our late start time and the length of the meal, only clean up was occurring at that point but it was still incredible to see the artists that orchestrated our meal and be able to ask questions.  Unfortunately Chef Achatz was not there that evening but even so, his influence was clearly all around us.  The staff was very gracious and answered all of my questions until I couldn’t think of any more.

Suddenly it was all over and we were driving back in the wee hours of the morning.  Since, the whole thing seems a bit surreal…a very Alice in Wonderland experience, to be sure.  A few friends have asked me about it and it is so difficult to put into words, but I’ve done the best I can here.  That, and to add…we’ll be going back as soon as possible – hopefully before this year is out.
  • Laura

    What an experience! His book is on my list, and I think this post just bumped it up in the queue. Just love NPR. Always something new and interesting, that you’d never hear anywhere else!

  • Paige

    So jealous! I was born and raised in Chicago and just moved away, but I always wanted to eat at Alinea (and Achatz’s other Chicago restaurant, Next). Unfortunately, they’re a little out of my grad school budget. Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

  • Michelle

    Glad you enjoyed this place! I would love to go!

  • Melissa

    If you like chef autobiographies, Blood, Bones and Butter is an awesome read too!

  • Wendi

    I want to go!!! :)))

  • Ruthie

    I love this, Annie. Glad you enjoyed this place. My boyfriend is always telling me I start all of my stories with that same NPR line! :) I’m a longtime reader, first-time commenter, but I had to share in your NPR love.

  • Stephanie

    Annie, If you ever find yourself in Sonoma County in Northern California. You must try Madrona Manor – a similarly “other-world-ness” dining experience!

  • Annie @Annie’s City Kitchen

    I haven’t had the pleasure to dine at Alinea yet but being from Chicago, it makes me SO proud to live in such a great food city. I loved your review!

  • Jen

    Sounds like a wonderful evening! I got to eat there about a year ago, and I have such great memories of that evening (mmm…hot potato). As you said, it was so much more than a meal, but really an entire experience. Because I went with some girlfriends, now I have the excuse that I have to go back with my husband, so that he can experience it, too!

  • Danielle

    I thought I just lacked the descriptive writing skills to adequately write about our dining experience at Alinea. I’m so relieved to read that I’m in good company with you! My husband and I went about 3 years ago and we are still talking about that night. Now granted, I did reveal that I was pregnant with our second child during that meal, but I have no doubt we’d still be talking about it even if it weren’t for that little detail.

    Grant actually prepared our dessert table side for us. I felt like a celebrity! He is very quiet and attuned to his work though, so there was very little interaction with him. We still felt truly honored that he chose our table, as not every table got that service!

    Your post has me jonesing to go back! I really want to try Next too.

  • Karen M.

    I’ve been coveting Alena as well, but I realized recently that I probably won’t get a chance to try it. I’m allergic to several items on the menu :(

  • Oh so exciting!! I’ve experienced Charlie Trotter’s and it was indescribable, I can only imagine the Alinea experience…

  • annieseats

    They accommodate food allergies.

  • Lauren V. @pass the spork

    My husband is from Chicago and we visit often, so I’ll have to put this on our list for next time. Last time we were in town, we visited the Girl and Goat and are still talking about that meal!

  • Guest

    I would love to go to Alinea one day. Of course, since I’ve been to Chicago once in my life, it seems unlikely… but it’s on my life list.

  • Ann P.

    That menu looks phenomenal! my mouth is watering just looking at it :)

  • Annie – you’re too funny. I too start far too many conversations with “I heard this story on NPR”, and I absolutely heard the same story on Fresh Air and have been so intrigued by Achatz and Alinea ever since – glad to hear that it’s every bit as amazing as it sounds!

  • Lauren

    I was just there 3 weeks ago, and I completely agree. You explain it as best as I could. It’s incredible and indescribable. Words don’t do it justice. It was amazing!

  • mayalaurent

    I am so jealous!!! We have been wanting to go there ever since we saw him on a documentary called Character Counts. Good to know the experience was amazing…we will have to add this to our list!

  • Michelle

    I live in Chicago and asked my husband for a memory for my birthday last year. We went to Alinea and it was by far the best dining experience we have ever had. I can appreciate that you aren’t able to put it into words. We have since been lucky enough to eat at Next for the Paris menu and more recently the Sicily menu. I highly suggest that you add Next to your list,

  • annieseats

    Yeah, I haven’t been able to get Next tickets yet.

  • zeze

    How much does it cost, if you don’t mind me asking?

  • Jocelyn

    Hi Annie, I’ve been following your blog for two years now, and I’m so happy you’re a foodie too! I went to Chicago a few weeks ago and also ate at Alinea. Our menus were quite different (I went on Aug 24) but I saw that we both got the green apple balloon :) What was your favorite part of the meal? Funny that you said “Alice in Wonderland” experience…I felt the same way! Especially when you walk through the front door. You have to try Next next…it was so fun that I wanted to get a season pass!

  • annieseats

    That info is available through their site. I think it varies on weekdays/weekends.

  • Rose

    Did you do the wine pairings? And if so do you recommend them? I’m more of a foodie myself, so I don’t know if I would appreciate the wine pairings.

  • Sonja

    How cool is this?! What a neat experience! Would love to chat about it :) We’ve heard such good things – so glad you enjoyed it so much!!

  • annieseats

    Yes, I did the pairing and so did one of the others in my group. I am pretty ignorant in the area of wine knowledge, so I’m sure I didn’t come close to appreciating it the way many might. However, it was a nice addition. But, I’m such a lightweight that I was only able to make it a little over halfway through the pairing. I could tell I was going over to the bad place and I knew I would forever regret it if I threw up my dinner from Alinea :) I was embarrassed to tell them that, but the waitstaff was very friendly about it.

  • I was able to eat at both Next and Alinea while living in Chicago, and both are unforgettable experiences. I was so excited to read through this post and see what you thought! By the end of our meal, I was close to tears (I mean that literally, my heart was beating very fast and my eyes were stinging) because the entire thing was so overwhelming (in a good way).

    My husband says he would go back just for the hot potato/cold potato. My favorite was the lamb course. What an experience to choose form the 50+ options and discuss what you thought they were with your dining companions.

    We did the Next Thailand menu and though it wasn’t quite as “grand” it was delicious and perfectly executed from the first detail to the last (much like Alinea).

    We did the non-alocholic drink pairing at Alinea, which I highly recommend. They made their our house ginger ale and it was sooooo good!

  • Rosanna

    Hi Annie, I first learned about Alinea through this post and last month my husband and I finally went! It was beyond amazing. A visit to Alinea definitely changes the way you look at and think about food. I wrote about my experience on my blog and linked to your post. Thanks for putting Alinea on my radar! :)

  • annieseats

    Sorry it took me so long to reply, but I am SO happy that you went and that you had an amazing experience. What they do is really something special, and truly defies description.