What You Need To Know About The New Alinea

Before you visit the best restaurant in the country, read these inside tips

Dinner as theater has been mastered in no show better than the spectacle of a meal at Chicago's golden child, Alinea. In 2005, French Laundry vet Grant Achatz, then 29, bestowed upon the city a revolutionary way to dine—inspiring chefs to think beyond the plate and enchanting diners with burning fall-scented oak branches, lavender air-emitting pillows and—what has become this progressive resto's calling card—that floating edible balloon, flavored first with green apple, later with passion fruit.

But after a decade of service in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, eight years on S. Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants list and consistently clocking in as one of the world's toughest tables to score, Achatz closed up shop last New Year's Day for a multimillion-dollar face-lift.

Photo: Matthew Gilson

Below are five of the nips and tucks Alinea underwent.

① No Reservations. Tock, the tough-to-crack dinner reservation ticketing system conceived by Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas, is still the method behind the table-nabbing madness. But the good news is that Alinea 2.0 has four more seats than its predecessor. Which means the chance of getting in is ever so slightly more in your favor.

② Course of Action. Prior to shuttering, Alinea 1.0 offered just one 16-course tasting menu for all. However, in its new incarnation, you have the option to select between three dining experiences, and based on the hour at which you dine, menu prices vary.

The Salon, located on the restaurant's second floor, will run you $175 to $225 for a 10-course menu. The Gallery, on the ground floor beside the kitchen, offers a longer menu of 16 to 18 courses at $295 to $345. Finally, The Alinea Kitchen Table is a glassed-in six-top commitment at $385 which, as its name suggests, claims a 144-square-foot corner nook in Alinea's kitchen, where guests try 16 to 30 courses depending on the eve. (Spoiler: Some nights, a whole animal might end up on your table.)

③ An International Affair. While Alinea's ever-changing, exploratory, globally influenced menu could, in the past, be summed up as progressive new American, under direction of executive chef Mike Bagale—who's been commanding the kitchen since 2013—the menu has started to slant to the flavors of Japan. Alinea 2.0 heavily celebrates Japan, but also Mexico, so go prepared to shoot mescal and be seduced by the intoxicating aroma of burning palo santo.  

④ Food for Thought. Rare ingredients from far and farther shone through bite after bite at the old Alinea. And though the restaurant still sources products from several hundred vendors in some 10 countries, the new iteration places greater emphasis on interactive dinner elements and the idea of food for thought. As expected, a bowl of fruit is never just a bowl of fruit.

⑤ Sweet Ending. So what about dessert? Beyond the balloon—which, rest assured, is still in play—one of Alinea's most celebrated courses was Achatz's Jackson Pollock-esque dessert in which chocolate, fruit and cream were painted, dropped, crushed and splattered directly onto a diner's rubber sheet-coated table. How do you top that? You'll have to score a seat to find out.