Before Alinea opened in 2005 and started blowing minds with its groundbreaking molecular cooking, partners Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas sat down to sketch out the ambitious Lincoln Park restaurant’s goals. Some concerned revenue targets; others involved ethical food sourcing. Some of these plans were vague—keep innovating, respect the customer—and others were ridiculously specific, like having Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet at the time, name it the best restaurant in America. Now, says Kokonas, never one to be shy about the restaurant’s success, “we’ve largely accomplished all of those goals.”
So Kokonas and Achatz invented new ones. Namely, to expand their empire—which at present includes such topnotch spots as Next, The Aviary, and Roister—and, just as important, to reinvent Alinea before it runs any risk of getting stale. In 2016, they poured seven figures into reimagining the outdated space as a timeless, elegant salon with a voluptuous LED chandelier, a sleek spiral staircase, and painted Plexiglas panels dangling from a coffered ceiling. The changes broke Alinea out of the impossible box it had occupied. The sterile and hypercontrolled atmosphere that once made Alinea feel like the world’s most pleasurable operating room has loosened considerably. It still rises to the same level of exacting excellence, but now it offers something even better: fun. (For proof, just Google “Justin Timberlake Alinea balloon.”)
Creativity flows through all three of executive chef Simon Davies’s tasting menus ($185 to $385). Sometimes this means a langoustine that’s been dehydrated and pressed into the form of a sheet that withers before your eyes into a bowl of bouillabaisse. Other times, it’s a “wet snow” of Asian pear with trout roe and shiso. A childlike sense of humor comes through in word-search menus and slices of “invisible” pumpkin pie, but everything serves a purpose, from smoldering juniper sprigs, which amplify the meaty flavor of a venison loin, to a bowl of citrus that appears on your table when you first arrive—it’s not a centerpiece, but rather a bit of aromatherapy, its citrus scent meant to bring out similar flavors in the first few courses.
The pacing, the mood, the whip-smart staff, the thought and sweat that goes into every element of the meal: It all comes together on North Halsted Street. Whether you consider it dinner, theatre, or an interactive gustatory art exhibit, Alinea is a bucket-list spectacle whose substance matches its considerable style.