Alinea - Service?
I am probably travelling into unpopular territory here, but I ate at Alinea for the first time last weekend and have to say I was a little disappointed.
First off: the presentation was phenomenal and I have absolutely no complaints. Some of the dishes presented will live in my memory for a long, long time.
However, the service left me feeling lukewarm. I've been in formal restaurants and I don't expect the server to be my best buddy, but I do expect them to facilitate our meal.
Some examples: My friend wanted to do the Reserve wine flight- but was told he couldn't since I was doing the regular and it would "detract from his experience" to have a different order. Really?
The servers in general were very harsh and demanding in their instructions, and never even added a please to their requests. Serious, I don't mind...but it probably won't kill you to soften your demands. I'm not freeloading.
If this had been my first time dining at a restaurant of this caliber, I would be turned off fine dining. If this had been my first time dining in Chicago, I would have put it down to a culture change. However, haven eaten at Moto and Schwa recently gives me (I think) a decent enough baseline to chalk it up to Alinea.
Sadly you might have noticed a trend there. My first four Alinea dinners remain among my several meals ever but recently I had a fairly disappointing experience. My meal lasted barely over two hours (prior meals were nearly four), service not as attentive or friendly as with prior visits. Also some amateur mistakes were made, such as we were twice asked if we needed a cab, both times said "no" and as we were leaving were informed our cab was waiting (not something you expect from a three Michelin star venue regarded as one of the world's best). While some of the courses were memorable and phenomenal (loved the scallop course and the corn dessert) and a couple other quite good, a majority of the menu was no different (or only tweaked) from my last visit nearly a year back (and a few unchanged from my first meal there - including a rather boring, uninspired ginger course that is fine once but weak as a repeat and ridiculous the fifth time).
Chef Achatz has been spending less time in house (turning a lot of the creative and executive duties to Chef Bagale), they lost some wonderful front of house staff and Achatz/Kokonas seem as though they have placed expansion of their brand and maximizing profits ahead of customer satisfaction and trying to continue having Alinea evolve and improve. To an extent they seem to be coasting on their reputation and past success (which can only carry you for so long). While I hope this is just a hiccup in Alinea's lifespan and Achatz and company rise to the challenge and opt to make another push towards Alinea becoming the world's best restaurant (they certainly have the talent), unfortunately Alinea may be past her prime and Grace very well could become widely regarded as Chicago's top venue in the not too distant future.
I found my last dining experience at Alinea to be a very poor value - especially if you have dined there within eighteen months and are expecting a significantly different menu rather than a watered down version of what you previously consumed with a handful of new courses interspersed. Several fine dining venues just in Chicago now have better service (Grace and Boka really shine in this area), most undergo significant menu changes seasonally (Grace, Moto, Boka, El Ideas, Sixteen, Elizabeth for example) and Grace and Goosefoot have IMHO better tasting food (with others such as Moto, El Ideas, Schwa, L2O, Boka and Elizabeth serving nearly as good cuisine). All of these venues are less money (some considerably so) and aside from Elizabeth do not require the hassle of non-refundable tickets (and Elizabeth does have some flexibility with regards to tickets sales if a conflict arises).
Alinea is certainly no longer the United States' best restaurant and unless improvements are made it is no longer head and shoulders above other top tier venues in Chicago.