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Alinea - Tips for a virgin visit

I'm going to be dining at Alinea for the first time on October 16th. I'm coming into Chicago for the weekend and was able to score a reservation for that evening.

Here's what is known for sure:

1. We're each having the 12-course tasting menu.
2. We're dining later in the evening.

Here is where I could use some help/advice/thoughts

1. Would you recommend doing the wine pairings with the food? I'm a little concerned that the wine will start to over-power our taste buds and clog the minds as we get later into the proceedings. It should be stated that while we enjoy wine, we are by no means experts in the field. What I'm trying to get at is it worth it for someone who may not apprecaite it as much as an experienced wine drinker.

2. Is it possilby smarter to maybe just order a bottle of red and/or white and vary back and forth between the two depending on what is being served? I know they won't match up as perfectly as the pairings themselves, but would that be a better plan for non-experts?

3. Does anyone know what the pricepoint would be if we ordered the wine pairings? It really isn't a huge issue, but I'm figuring we're around $350 to $375 before we start getting to beverages. I'm just trying to get an idea of the different choices.

4. What is the dress like in there? Do men wear suits? How about the ladies? How formal does it get or is it casual as well? Just trying to get a feel as to what to pack.

Any advice that anyone has regarding this will be extremely helpful in terms of planning the night.

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  1. Hi Db Cooper -

    Mr CF and I went in September last year to Alinea and loved it. We also did the 12 course tasting menu.

    I would recommend the wine pairings. They were fabulous and when we didn't care for one of the wines, the wine steward opened a different wine for us. I do think it would be worth it. Plus it's easier (and probably cheaper), as it's much more difficult to pair 2 wines to 12 different courses than to sit back and let someone take care of you. Whether you're an experienced wine drinker or a newbee, IMHO, you'll enjoy it.

    I don't remember how much the wine pairings cost... the website lists the cost for the dinner ($145) but I didn't see anything regarding the wines. They have a nice wine list though. We had a Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham" that was incredible, especially with that particular course - Lamb.

    I didn't see men in suits, but Mr CF wore a sport coat and I wore a dress, everyone we saw was dressed nicely but not formally.

    Hope that helps and have a great time. We can't wait to go again.
    oh and get a cab!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Cookiefiend

      Thank you for your response Cookiefiend. We are both very excited.

      I've found a few other threads here that suggested possibly just splitting a wine course. We may do that. I want to experience the wines they suggest, but don't want to get too buzzed up that I lose the ability to taste the food.

      Db doesn't do ties so it's good to hear that suits aren't required. I will probably adopt my wardrobe to something similar that Mr. CF wore.

      We're staying at the Swissotel so we aren't that far away. I will take your advice about the cab.

      Thank you again for your thoughts and advice.

    2. You will LOVE LOVE LOVE Alinea. Here are my thoughts:

      1) Absolutely do the wine pairings - you don't always get a "fresh wine" with each course, so it's not going to be too much wine. The meal is paced so well that it isn't too much, in my opinion.

      2) Don't order a bottle. Get the pairing. End of story.

      3) The price with pairing adds (from what I can remember) $95 or so. Well worth it.

      4) To be comfortable, I would recommend men wear a jacket - no tie needed. It's a relaxed overall experience, but not "casual." Something nicer than you'd wear to work is a good rule for women, but leave the cocktail & evening dress at home.

      Enjoy - you'll LOVE it. Give yourself a 5 hour cushion time-wise.

      3 Replies
      1. re: jliebze

        Thank you for your advice jliebze.

        Based off this advice, we are going to do the pairings. We're not sure if we're going to split one or each get it. We'll talk it over with the wine stewards. Our reservation is later (9:45pm), but we aren't the types who usually go to bed early anyway on vacation :-)

        Here is the rest of the dining plan for the trip:

        Lunch at La Sardine
        Dinner at Giordano's

        Lunch at Mr. Beef or Al's
        Dinner at Graham Eliot

        Lunch at Mr. Beef or Al's, whichever one we didn't go to on Saturday.

        It should be a fun trip packed with some good eating. These places seemed to mentioned again and again here and in other food jounals about Chicago. The goal was to try fine-dining at Alinea, Charile Trotters, or Tru. I was lucky enough to get the reservation at Alinea which was our first choice. We also wanted to have pizza once, an Italian beef sandwich, and possibly a nice rare juicy steak. It appears that La Sardine has a three-course lunch menu with steak frites so that should work.

        Now we're just hoping we have good weather in the Windy City that weekend!

        1. re: Db Cooper


          Be sure to write back and let us know how it went! You're making a great decision.
          And tell us about Graham Elliot - I thought about going there in August but went to One Sixty Blue instead. We enjoyed it but I'm wondering what I might have missed!

          I'll be up next weekend for a concert but we're just going to do a casual early dinner... I too am hoping for good weather!

          1. re: Db Cooper

            Twice I've done the wine pairings at Alinea -- once split, the other whole. I prefer to split. The pours are pretty generous.

            La Sardine is a good choice for classic French bistro food. But why Giordano's? It's not bad, and in fact it's pretty good, but I find the various locations to be inconsistent. I generally think it's pretty good, but Lou Malnati's and Pizano's are much better in my opinion for deep dish (I assume that's why you're going). And order the butter crust at Malnati's or Pizano's (they're almost identical . . . both owned by members of the Malnati family).

            Al's on Taylor Street is the place to go for your Italian beef (make sure to go to the one on Taylor St., and not one of the awful franchised locations).

            I visited Graham Elliot's a little over a month ago, and I enjoyed my meal, but many others have not. Now I read that GE is reformatting the menu (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/cgi-bi...), so be forewarned that you may be a guinea pig for a new menu. If that scares you, you might want to try Otom, which pre-reformatting, has been a similar concept and perhaps better than Graham Elliot's. (http://www.otomrestaurant.com/index_o...)

        2. I would recommend the wine pairings. If you're worried about it being too much wine, they will split the pairings between you and your dining partner (i.e., you each get half pours the whole way through). The last couple of times I've been to Alinea that's what I've done and it's been a perfect amount of wine.

          1. Do the wine pairings, have a great time and BTW, they sacrifice virgins between the fourth and fifth courses.

            3 Replies
            1. re: hoppy2468

              I would like to thank everyone for their responses. They are all very helpful.

              -We are thinking we're going to split a wine pairing. That way, we'll get the tastes without the effects of too much alcohol.

              -In regards to the pizza, it came down to Giordano's and Lou Malnati's. The goal was to get a true Chicago deep-dish pizza experience. I went thru about ten pages of posts here and other places and those two came out on top. We picked Giordanos after looking at the web sites. From what I gathered, you couldn't go wrong picking either of them and there was a Giordano's closer to the hotel. We're going to Second City that night for the show so we wanted something close to the hotel too.

              -We are going to do Graham Eliot. The plan for that night came down to three places: Gene and Georgetti, Graham Eliot, and Sepia. We chose Graham Eliot. I think their new menu is up on their website and there were a number of interesting dishes we wanted to try. I am not afraid to try a new menu, especially when there is a chef I trust executing the menu. Everything I've read about Chef Bowles gives me the confidence that it will be an interesting and tasty menu.

              -We are for sure doing Al's on Taylor Street and not one of the other locations. I've heard that area is a fun place to hang out and visit too so it should be fun.

              Again, thank you to everyone for your advice. I'll post a re-cap here the week after we get back from the trip.

              1. re: Db Cooper

                please write a review when you go> my girlfriend and i have reservations on holloween and we would like to know ifit is worth it

                1. re: lestererik

                  Hi Lestererik,

                  I promise to post a review by Friday, the 25th of October. I have to travel to North Carolina on business on Tuesday and Wednesday and then to California early Friday, the 25th for the Breeders Cup. I am planning to write up my review on the plane to North Carolina and I'll post it here before leaving for California.

                  However, please know that we basically planned our whole trip after securing this reservation. We live in the Twin Cities and we're coming to Chicago for the weekend mainly because of the opportunity to dine at Alinea. So I may be biased somewhat in my review. I just wanted you to know.

                  Here's an article from Gourmet Magazine. I think it says a lot about if it is worth it and was really the inspiration for this trip in the first place:

            2. Giordano's is the best choice for pizza! Make sure you get the deep dish. I recommend sausage with whatever other veggie in it that you like (we prefer sausage and mushroom).

              I haven't been to Alinea, but last year I did go to Gordon Ramsey's MAZE restaurant in NYC (which also follows the tasting menu concept) and it was FABULOUS!

              Enjoy your evening and let us know how everything was!


              1. We are new to Chicago and have booked an anniversary dinner this wednesday.
                I am a small eater so we will probably opt for the tasting menu.

                I have two questions about Alinea (and didn't feel it was apt to start another thread):
                1. Is it appropriate/possible to BYOB?
                2. I don't eat meat (seafood is okay). Is it possible for them to subsitute certain items on their tasting menu? do I have to call ahead of time to notify?

                Any response would be greatly appreciated.
                Thank you

                15 Replies
                1. re: happycamper

                  I would doubt that one could BYO at Alinea, but it would be worth a call to ask.
                  We were there with one "no mammal" eater (fish, seafood, chicken ok) and they made nice substitutions.

                  1. re: chicgail

                    Hi Happy Camper,

                    When I called and made my reservation, they asked me if we had any dietary restrictions like allergies or menu preferences. I think, as Chicgail mentions above, that they will work around it for you.

                    I don't know about BYOB. We are going to spilt a pairing as I think part of the fun will be to taste the wines they select to go with the food. Every thread I've ever seen says that if you are going to do wine, go with the pairings.

                    1. re: Db Cooper

                      I just returned from a trip to Chicago and from the tasting menu at Alinea. After reading the boards, I had mentioned to one of our servers the idea of splitting the wine pairing vs. each doing the wine pairing. He mentioned that you do not get a glass of wine per course, a few share a pour. They are also willing to work with you - if you want more, they'll pour more, if you want less, they'll pour less, and will charge accordingly. They said that the full wine pairing is roughly equivalent to about 3 full glasses of wine. A very enjoyable and memorable night.

                      1. re: hungry_monkey

                        I'm sorry it took so long to get back to posting my experience. I'll try to keep it brief:

                        -Alinea is like nothing I've ever experienced. It ended up being 15-courses. All of you who have eaten there know about Black Truffle Explosion. That may be the greatest thing I have ever eaten. Simply brilliant. The best way I can explain it is what I said to my server:

                        "If there was a way I could make my life a DVD, I would like to start over three hours ago and eat this dinner again. And then again. "

                        We ended up splitting the wines. It worked for us. It was just the right amount. They were extremly gracious about. Hungry Monkey is right, that they do some courses with the same wine as the flavor profiles are correct.

                        It is a dining experience that really has no rival. If you have the opporunity, and the money ($600 total for 2), it is something that everyone who enjoys food should do at least once. Gourmet Magazine was right, it is the best restaurant I've been to in the Unitied States. And the cookbook arrived today too. I may be trying some of these things at home.

                        -Giordano's and Lou Malnati's are great. We tried both. I could never choose because they make a different type of pizza. But I was happy with both of them. The Twin Cities is a thin crust town and it was nice to finally eat a real pizza again.

                        -Mr. Beef and Al's are what I want to open up in the Twin Cities. I could eat one of those every day. And judging by the waistlines of some of the people eating there, it appears there are some Chicago residents who have made it a lifetime pursuit as well.

                        -Lunch at La Sardine was also very good. I'm an admitted sucker for French cooking and this place does it pretty well. I wouldn't say I'd go out of my way for it, but it is definitely worth the stop if you are near the area. Unfortunately, Oprah's studio is across the street. Seeing as I still believe Oprah secretly conspired with Bin Laden to cause 9/11 to drive her ratings and spring the curse of Dr. Phil upon us all, this was an unwelcomed development. But I digress. Get the French Onion Soup if you go.

                        -We backed out of Graham Eliot. After looking at the menu, we came to a realization. There was nothing on it that we wanted to eat. That isn't to say that it wouldn't be good, but in every dish there was one extra ingredient that gave us pause. Most of them were more texture things that we knew we didn't like. So we cancelled. Sorry. I hope it works out for him as he seems like a good guy.
                        We ended up at Gene and Georgetti's instead becaue we know you can't go wrong with a bone-in ribeye and plate of hash browns. Plus, the staff there is a joy to watch. Half of them are so old they need glasss the size of a plate to see and their English is worse than their eyesight. Of course, I loved it. Just seemed like a place that had been around forever.

                        -The Cheezborgers at the Billy Goat Tavern are a little overrated. But the beers are good and the atmosphere is top notch. That will be a stop everytime I'm in town for business.

                        So to conclude, I really feel like we ate well in Chicago for four days. We had a blast and have agreed to come back sometime and do it again. Who knows, we may substitute some other restaurants, but those of you who live there are the objects of our food-related jealousy.

                        1. re: Db Cooper


                          Thanks for letting everyone know how things went. I'm so glad you enjoyed Alinea, it is amazing.

                          Next time you're in Chicago, try Schwa. You'll have to start trying for a reservation well in advance (like 2 months) but it is so worth it!

                          1. re: Db Cooper

                            I am also dining at Alinea's for the first time this weekend with my daughter who goes to school in Chicago. I actually planned my entire trip around the reservation (flying in from Canada !!). I was really interested in your feedback regarding the wine pairings, as I was a bit disappointed when I selected this option at Moto's recently.

                            Thanks for the great review !!

                            1. re: tammarak


                              If it's your first time, I'd highly advise doing going with the wine pairings.

                              The best way to explain the evening is that it is a show that involves food and wine. The stories that go with each of the dishes and the wines are part of the show. If you decide against the pairings, you miss out on some of it and the interesting backstories that they tell you on how they decided to select them. And while I no way claim to be a James Bond like expert on wines, I was able to discern the taste and flavors of the wine and why they went with the food on the table.

                              Enjoy your trip and safe travels. If you like, please post your experiences here as I think it is always fun to hear other's thoughts on it.

                              1. re: Db Cooper

                                We just got back from Alinea and were completely blown away by the entire experience!!!! It was absolutely awesome and worth every penny, but seemed to end too quickly...... The time just flew by. My favorite dish was the Lobster, popcorn, butter and curry and my daughter's was the Lamb, lemon and fennel. We were very jealous of the people just sitting down to eat as we left. The wine pairings were also the way to go. I was very happy to purchase the special edition of the Alinea cook book which was signed by Chef Achatz himself while we were there !! We can't wait to go back and try the "Tourning" menu, after we save some money.....

                                1. re: tammarak

                                  Alinea really is a "silver box" experience. You just kind of put it in a silver box, open it once in a while and remember how great it was.

                    2. re: happycamper

                      I dined at Alinea with a full vegetarian (no meat and no fish) and they accommodated her wonderfully. The courses were the same but with interesting substitutions. In a way, I recommend it even for non-veggos, since one is able to see and taste even more.

                      1. re: croissantanyone

                        I'd highly recommend getting the cookbook that Tammarak mentioned. It is almost like having a professionally done memento of your evening and experience at the restaurant. Plus, you can give it your own shot at making some of the food at home.

                        We're planning on possibly returning in the spring.

                        I'm still not sure I'm able to pick out my favorite dish from that night. I also enjoyed the crab dish. I also was a huge fan of the Kobe Beef that served as our centerpiece for awhile. Black Truffle explosion was out of this world. The cauliflower and apple soup dish was something I want to do at home some day. I loved them all which is why it is so hard to pick just one.

                        1. re: Db Cooper

                          I may suprise my wife with a short trip to Chicago in April.

                          Is it difficult to get Alinea reservations? We've been to French Laundry and would love to get to Grant's place. Any tricks?


                          Oakland, CA

                          1. re: Bryan Gros

                            You don't need "tricks". It's not like the French Laundry where you have to call within the first ten minutes the day they open up the reservations for your date, and all you get is a busy signal.

                            I forget how far in advance they start taking reservations, but just call when they do and you should get in without any hassle.

                            1. re: nsxtasy

                              A friend is going next week, and I asked him about his experience making his reservation. He said that they don't generally fill up during the week, especially since the economy declined. They also told him that most of their requests are for two people, which is much harder than for four or six people; he made his Saturday reservation for four people in late December.

                              Obviously, your best bet is to call as far in advance as possible, such as when they first start accepting reservations. However, it's not likely to be all that difficult to get a reservation, as little as a month in advance, unless you have a party of two on a Saturday night. And as always, don't rule it out without at least calling to ask, even at the last minute; you've got nothing to lose by trying.

                              This is NOT like making a reservation at the French Laundry...

                            2. re: Bryan Gros

                              The reservation book opens on the first of each month for two months out. So, if you want a reservation any time in April, you can start calling on February 1. If you want to go on a weekend, I would highly recommend calling on the first of the month as close to opening time as possible (I think 9am Central time).