Alternative to Alinea?
Hello, I am a long-time Chowhound lurker, first time poster. My husband and I will be in Chicago in 2 weeks for a conference and will be able to have only one night out together where we will be able to leave our baby with the in-laws. This will either be a Sunday or Tuesday night. Since we only have one night to go out together, we want to have a fantastic meal.
My first choice was Alinea, however they are booked that Sunday night except for a 5pm reservation for the 12-course tasting (and I wanted to eat at a normal time- starting 7-8pm or so and would have done the full tour at Alinea; I also wouldn't want to feel rushed out of there around 8pm when I'm sure they would have another party ready for that table), and they are not open on Tuesday.
So, I am looking for an alternative. We have never spent much time in Chicago, and now are only able to rarely get out for a nice meal, so we want to have a memorable night. I do not necessarily need another restaurant just like Alinea with "molecular gastronomy" (though we have very much enjoyed this type of dining), but am just looking for any other recommendations for a restaurant with fantastic food, excellent service, and a good atmosphere. We want to go to a place where we will be able to linger for several hours over a long meal.
I had already prepared to spend a fair amount of money at Alinea, so any price range is ok. We are staying in the River North area, but will have a car or can take a cab to restaurants. We enjoy all types of food, and are not vegetarians.
Some of my thoughts on alternative restaurants so far are:
Let me know what you think for a choice for this night out of these places, or I'm happy to hear any other suggestions.
I also may try calling Alinea back a couple of times and see if they have any cancellations for Sunday night- I'm not sure how common cancellations may be, or when would be the best time to call (1 week prior?, 48 hours prior?, etc.)
I recently had dinner at Alinea and had the smaller, 12-course menu. The pacing was just perfect; we never had a lengthy wait for a course, and we always had ample time to catch a breath between courses. The entire meal did seem to proceed like clockwork, unobtrusively so, as though according to a plan. We did not feel rushed at all! It took exactly three hours from start to finish.
We did not feel as though we were missing out on anything by having the smaller menu rather than the larger one. We felt comfortably full at the end of the meal, and we experienced all the most well-known dishes they serve. It was a wonderful meal, one of the best we've ever had, anywhere.
If you wind up going on a Tuesday, I would highly recommend Avenues. I had dinner there last night (second time eating there under Chef Duffy) and it was excellent. Almost a perfect substitute for Alinea, as Chef Duffy's cooking has been highly influenced by his time spent in the kitchen at Alinea.
Well, if it's on Sunday night, you're going to be limited to places that are open on Sunday for dinner. That eliminates Moto, Avenues, and TRU from consideration, and leaves the choice between Spiaggia and North Pond. They are two very different *kinds* of places, each excellent in its own way. Spiaggia is one of our very best restaurants, with creative cuisine (Italian), impeccable service from an army of waitstaff, dressy attire (jackets for gentlemen), expensive ($200+/pp inclusive), etc. North Pond is more along the lines of "casual fine dining", with more casual (business casual) attire, fewer waitstaff, less expensive ($80-100/pp inclusive). Although the cuisine may not have the level of creativity of Spiaggia, it's excellent nonetheless. And the setting in the middle of Lincoln Park is exquisite and unique. I think both are excellent places where you can have a wonderful meal, and worthy of consideration, depending on what you're looking for. One more option for Sundays is Carlos, the only thoroughly fine dining (i.e. very dressy and expensive) restaurant in Chicago's suburbs. The cuisine is contemporary French, the decor is traditional, and the food and service are excellent. It's in Highland Park, 25 miles north of Chicago, an easy 45-minute drive on a Sunday; it's also just a half block from the Highwood station on the Metra commuter train line. As BRB mentions, L2O is another option for Sundays. While it's not quite at the Spiaggia/Avenues level in terms of flawless food or service based on my own experience there, it's a gorgeous contemporary space, and if the seafood focus is attractive to you, it may be worth considering.
If it turns out to be a Tuesday, then you can eliminate Carlos and L2O, which are closed on Tuesdays, but all the others are candidates. TRU and Avenues are both thoroughly excellent in every way, and you ought to have a wonderful dinner at either of them, as well as the previously-mentioned Spiaggia and North Pond. You really can't go wrong with any of these. You haven't mentioned two of our other top tables, Charlie Trotter's and Everest, but both are also worth considering for a Tuesday (not Sunday) - Trotter's the longtime innovator and still excellent, and Everest the more French-Alsatian focused and also still outstanding, with perhaps the best wine list and also that great view of the city from the 40th floor of the Midwest Stock Exchange Building.
Moto leans the most towards "molecular gastronomy" and unusual techniques; however, it is not in the same "haute cuisine" category as the others and is more along the lines of North Pond (albeit without the setting and view) in that it doesn't have the army of waitstaff, attire is more casual, prices are not as high, the room is more bistro-ey, etc. If you are really looking for the elements of a truly luxurious experience, more so than the whole "molecular gastronomy" thing, then I would say Moto may not not really be what it sounds like you're looking for. But if I'm wrong about that, then by all means consider it.
If this sounds like it's a tough decision, you're right! That's because Chicago has so many outstanding choices for restaurants, and you're considering most of the very best places in town. You'll probably have a great dinner at any of them.
My general philosophy is, when in doubt, look at their websites and read through the sample menus there, and see if one place "grabs" you.
>> I also may try calling Alinea back a couple of times and see if they have any cancellations for Sunday night- I'm not sure how common cancellations may be, or when would be the best time to call (1 week prior?, 48 hours prior?, etc.)
I suggest calling them now, explaining your situation, and asking them if they can place you on a "wait list" to call you in the event of cancellations for that evening, at a later hour when you could have the tour. If they don't do that, then ask *them* your question about when to try calling them back.
First, note that Blackbird is a "casual fine dining" restaurant, like North Pond and Moto, rather than the "haute cuisine fine dining" of the other restaurants mentioned above. It's a distinction that is reflected in many ways, from the prices, to the attire, to the level of service, to the menus (a la carte vs lengthy tasting menus), to the creativity of the food.
I've eaten at Blackbird several times. The food is excellent; however, there are several maddening things about it that make me hesitate to recommend it; the portion sizes are really small (something that almost never bothers me), it's quite noisy, and most of the tables there are in a setup I really hate, with one long line of tables along one wall, and the tables about two inches apart from each other, so you're practically stuck sharing conversations with people at adjacent tables.
Chicago has quite a few other casual fine dining restaurants which I prefer, because the food is equally outstanding without the downsides of Blackbird. My favorite is Cafe des Architectes, in the gorgeous Sofitel hotel. Chef Noguier and Pastry Chef Imaz create magically wonderful food there. It's also quite a bargain; most of the menu is 3 courses for $42, and Sundays through Tuesdays they also offer their "neighborhood friends" menu, 3 courses for $29. I'd love it even if it weren't a bargain; that's just a bonus. Two other casual fine dining places I've thoroughly enjoyed are Aigre Doux (primarily for its food) and North Pond (as already mentioned above, for its exquisite setting in the middle of the park as well as its food).
Sunday can be rough -- so many places are not even open (including Avenues). Anyway, assuming you can't get into Alinea, my next choice would be Avenues. The food is outstanding and It's the most similar to Alinea, in both style and quality. The new chef (Curtis Duffy) used to cook at Alinea. If you prefer molecular gastronomy, then Moto and Schwa (which you don't mention) would also be good choices, although I think Alinea and Avenues are far superior. And Schwa is byo, pretty casual, and a nightmare to get into.
Spiaggia and Tru are both excellent, but I much prefer Alinea and Avenues because I prefer the style of food (molecular). And although North Pond is very good, it's not in the same league as the above. What I love about Alinea and the like is that they offer dishes that are rarely available at restaurants . . . it's just so creative. And while these restaurants are not for everyone, if you enjoy that type of dining you should ensure you get a reservation at one of those places . . . if not Alinea, definitely Avenues. One other spot to consider is seafood oriented L.20. I don't know if I'd quite call if molecular gastronomy, but it definitely leans in that direction.