With the news regarding the closure of River North’s Rainforest Cafe having sunk in, you—now submerged in throes of grief and agony—are haunted by one question: why Rainforest Cafe and not Alinea?
The query, while outlandish at first glance, is not—youthink—altogether unfair. Alinea, Rainforest Cafe, and Barton G. (another fallensoldier in Chicago) have more in common than most restaurants. You think theyprovide just about the same value, relative to their respective prices, too. Eachmember of this triumvirate occupies the market category of the “themerestaurant,” which might include other renowned local establishments such asAmerican Girl Cafe, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (yet another tragic closure), andThree Dots and a Dash. In fact, you would hesitate to list the latter given itssubstantive quality as a traditional tiki bar beyond the mere trappings of itstheme. These other restaurants, however, tend to be all hat and no cattle.
The theme restaurant, as far as you understand it, exists to pleaseinfantile palates. You do not say “infantile” with any tinge of disrespect, asthese establishments offer plenty of excitement to help hush fussy children andensure a relatively tranquil dining experience for overworked parents. In thatsense, the setting often takes on more salience than the cuisine, which aims tobe pleasing but not profound. Everybody—across all ages and cultures—shouldeasily find something to like. These are not places to be shocked or challengedbut, rather, tickled. The food may take on unfamiliar forms—varying shapes,colors, and sizes—but feature no jagged edges. It’s standard fare dressed up inclownish attire so as to match the drama occurring elsewhere in the diningroom.
What the food lacks in intrigue, then, it gains from fitting the flavor of the larger theme. Beverages, menus, décor, and staff attire all work together to create the illusion of stepping into ”another world.” There might very well be aspects of stagecraft to the experience: props, music, and special effects that blur the line between sustenance and show. It’s a bit like dinner theatre, only less demanding of one’s attention throughout the performance (and, thus, well-suited to the youngest of patrons). This is all to say, theme restaurants occupy that rarest stratum of the food world where the fare is only an accessory to the experience. Much like a trip to the movie theatre (which, as an establishment itself, looks to be on its last legs), one’s memory of the concessions consumed pales relative to the show one has seen. Going one step further, theme restaurants are more akin to those sorts of “fluff films” that provide a couple hours’ entertainment without ever deeply engaging one’s emotions. They, along with the size of the popcorn and type of candy one ordered, fade into nothingness when all is said and done. This is not the realm of “art” or nostalgia, but simply a way to twiddle away one’s time without rocking the boat of day-to-day existence.
With this primer on theme restaurants in mind, you will illuminate theties that bind Chicago’s lone three Michelin star restaurant to its now-defunctrainforest dining experience. For most guests, visiting either Alinea orRainforest Cafe is a special occasion. At the very least, neither establishmentis the sort of place they will dine week to week or month to month. For many,you would wager, they are both “once in a lifetime” experiences that do notbear repetition. This is not only, in part, due to the essence of themerestaurants that you touched on above, but also due to the particular gambitboth of these restaurants employ (which you will further elucidate). Somecustomers may choose to return seasonally or annually, but this is often due tothe prodding of children (for whom the novelty effect is particularly salient)or the designs of manchildren (who maintain a conspicuous consumptive, “see andbe seen” attitude regarding their affairs).
Though Alinea maintains a rather subdued façade—fitting for itslocation in Lincoln Park—Rainforest Cafe’s outer design was about aseye-catching as any restaurant could be. Its towering, red-eyed frog andlarger-than-life fungi sculptures were meant to catch the eye in a crowded sectionof River North that features a Hard Rock Cafe, Hooters, and McDonald’s(formerly bearing the famous “Rock N Roll” design, now more naturalistic). ForAlinea, any idea of foot traffic is an absolute bane. As revealed by the CatCora “incident,” even a mistaken reservation is met with utter rudeness anddisregard. Thus, it pays to maintain a mysterious and austere image from thestreet. In contrast, Rainforest Cafe, surely, welcomed foot traffic. It tookreservations (and, you think, some number of customers truly planned theirvisits in advance), but it also boasted the space—unlike Alinea—to accommodatea large proportion of walk-ins. This explains any discrepancy in the outerbranding of the two restaurants, for the real similarities come into focus onceone enters through their doors.
Prior to the renovation that marked the restaurant’s tenth anniversary,entering Alinea was defined by an optical illusion: what seemed to be a ratherlong hallway set behind the front door was actually a trick of depth perception.The second door leading into the restaurant proper actually laid only a fewpaces ahead. While entering Alinea’s dining room post-renovation is actuallyrather boring (not to mention claustrophobic), this summer’s AIR: Alinea inResidence resurrected some of the optical trickery. Diners were funneled down amakeshift “hallway” filled with streaming lights that created the sensation oftraveling through a wormhole. After being spit out at the other end, guestswere treated to a “controversial” COVID-inspired canapé before being usheredinto the elevator that brought them to the rooftop dining space. Both illusionscertainly come off for first-time guests, and—further—they serve to underlineAlinea’s ethos. Which is to say, they communicate that “things are not as theyseem” within the walls of the restaurant. The phrase “expect the unexpected”also comes to mind. Alinea, in the establishment’s own words, means “a newtrain of thought.” To that effect, this opening trickery—particularly thehallway that defined the restaurant for decade—asserts a certain playfulnessthat cuts through the drama typically associated with fine dining.
In much the same manner, entering Rainforest Cafe is not quite likeany other restaurant either. Though the outer décor hints at the nature of theoverall design, passing through the portal entails stepping into a fantasyworld where frights and thrills lurk behind every corner. Foliage covers theceiling, evoking the sense that one is covered by the forest’s canopy. Hulkingtree trunks—which double, you think, as support beams—help complete theillusion. In the center of the dining room, the “canopy” breaks to reveal aglowing blue sky strewn with artificial stars and planets that draw the eyeupwards. Aquariums of different shapes and sizes accent the space, with thelargest among them acting as gateways that guests pass under to move about thespace. Outcrops of fake “rock” line the walls and sections of the floor,blending in with the canopy by way of additional, dangling greenery. These outcropsalso act as stages for a wide variety of animatronic creatures. Elephants,gorillas, butterflies, and the like—all life-size (or even larger thanlife)—entertain guests with their movements and add further to the sense ofimmersion. A riff on the famous Atlas statue—set in a babbling water fountain—standsas the lone interloper in the scene. He carries a globe that, in neon lights,calls upon diners to “save the rainforest.” Much like Alinea’s optical illusions,Atlas—set within this larger, naturalistic ambiance—speaks to Rainforest Cafe’ssoul. While the scale of the plants, animals, and night sky fills guests withwonder, the statue—the lone representation of humanity in the well-curatedspace—underlines that the rainforest is “another world” untouched by mankind,which carries the responsibility of preserving it. By reinforcing a sense ofotherness (relative to the naturalistic scene), the restaurant primes diners tobe pulled into the experience.
The unique ambiance constructed through Alinea’s trickery and Rainforest Cafe’scast of flora and fauna is, in truth, par for the course when it comes to themerestaurants. Cosmetic distinction is the most salient way of branding a space,and it makes crafting marketing material all the easier too. Alinea is elegantand mysterious, drawing on greyscale tones and subdued lighting. Rainforest Cafeis more “in your face” yet not altogether charmless: the cacophony of soundsand density of design elements make for a family-friendly baseline of perceived“activity.” Rather than simply forming audible and visual “white noise,” thishigh threshold is maintained to mask the cafe’s own set of surprises. Thus,both Alinea’s genteel dining room and Rainforest Cafe’s comparable jungle ofactivity—for their respective settings—seduce consumers with the feeling thatwonder awaits them at any moment. This emotional spark, this foundation of alteredexpectations (relative to the “average” restaurant experience) lays thegroundwork for the guest experience to come.
Once diners have navigated the entrance, noted the ambiance, and madetheir way to the table, the interpersonal facet of the hospitality experiencecomes into focus. At the top of the pyramid, Rainforest Cafe boasts a pantheonof anthropomorphic animals that embody the brand. Like sports mascots or Disneycharacters (within the parks), these figures are played by employees wearingcostumes who walk from table to table offering waves and photo opportunities.They include “Cha Cha” the red-eyed tree frog, “Ozzie” the orangutan, “Rio” themacaw, and “Nile” the crocodile to name just a few. Alinea, in much the samemanner, maintains its own set of mascots: there’s “Grant” the mustachioedmolecular gastronomy magician and “Nick” the money man. (The cast of charactersat Alinea, admittedly, feels a bit thin, as no one in recent memory has cementeda longstanding presence in the realms of wine service or hospitality).
These larger-than-life figures have little to do with the day-to-dayoperation of the respective two restaurants. Rather, they are caricaturizedpublic relations creations used to cultivate consumer excitement surroundingthe brands. Yes, once upon a time, “Grant” was the renowned chef of Trio, themastermind of four-hour molecular gastronomy meals in Alinea’s heyday. But nowhe only serves to hawk cookbooks and cookware, to film instructional videos forthe brand’s overpriced at-home offerings, to (finally) appear across foodmedia, and to make an occasional appearance in the dining room for that covetedphoto-op: playing the part of the “mad scientist” as he shovels so much fairydust and unicorn shit down the gullets of his gushing fans. You doubt “Cha Cha”the tree frog ever worked the line at any Rainforest Cafe location, but the endresult is the same: the mascots commanded customers’ attention as idealizedexpressions of the restaurant brand. This amounts, in most cases, to a fantasythat can never quite be fulfilled: Rainforest Cafe is not operated by animals,nor is Alinea’s cuisine—on any given night—being conjured by the hand of themaster.
Much of the work these characters perform occurs long before customersever step through the restaurants’ doors. To wit, “Cha Cha” and “Ozzie” beckondiners to pay Rainforest Cafe a visit from their oversized perch on theestablishment’s signage. They are proudly featured on the company’s socialmedia pages, its website, and in promotional material both printed andbroadcast. The connection, in this manner, is drawn between the restaurant (aplace one ostensibly visits to consume nourishment) and the characters: colorful,fun-loving critters who imbue the setting with a sense of adventure and wonder.Likewise, anyone familiar with Alinea has likely heard of “Grant’s” exploits—thehead chef having overcome death at the final hour and lived to transform foodas we know it from the inside out. Though the restaurant launched in the shadowof his tongue cancer (and all the drama such a struggle entails), the fifteen yearssince its opening have seen “Grant” construct an impenetrable image. With asecond lease on life, he has adopted the aura of the quiet monk, the silentmagician toiling away at unseen creations meant to shock and awe the diner.
“Grant” talks to the press, provides them quotes, and even—over thepast few years—maintains an active Instagram presence that includes, from timeto time, engaging directly with fans’ comments. Appearances on Netflix’s Chef’sTable and The Final Table have cemented his position at the vanguardof American cookery for a whole new generation. (For, although he had previouslyacted as a guest judge on shows like Top Chef, you think “Grant” ran therisk of needing to reinvent himself for a new generation of “foodies” too youngto have paid attention to Alinea’s first decade and the personal story therestaurant’s opening entailed). Most recently, both “Grant” and “Nick” havegraced television screens throughout the country on behalf of Made In. Theirpresence in the advertisements as Alinea mascots asserts that the cookware is “worthyof Michelin three-star kitchens,” one of the brand’s key selling points.
Throughout this range of content, particularly that which has been released recently, “Grant” strikes the viewer as a bit reserved. Perhaps he simply seems so relative to his mouthy peers in this age of the marauding “celebrity chef.” However, you can name plenty of chefs who are soft-spoken yet, nonetheless, move you with the genuineness and intensity of emotion they impart with a mere few words. No, “Grant” has always seemed to you to be more of the cipher, enigma, or trickster figure. There’s nothing deceptive about him; rather, a matter-of-fact manner of interaction is used to obscure the deepest workings of his mind. Of course, most diners know of “Alinea” before get a sense of “Grant.” They know, ahead of time, that this man is the maestro behind all manner of strange colors, thrilling textures, and other smoke and mirrors surrounding the imagined “Alinea experience.” Like Wonka limping down the cobblestone with his cane, “Grant” dares onlookers to find any trace of the whimsy that envelops customers who taste his food. But he doesn’t yield. “Grant” is thoroughly present, should one ask him a question or to pose for a photo, but resolutely ordinary in his bearing and cadence. He downplays any sense of being a “personality,” not feeling the weight of nearly fifteen years of culinary “celebrity.” Should one see him at Alinea, Next, or Roister (you get the sense he wouldn’t be caught dead at St. Clair Supper Club), “Grant” will be silently toiling away as if he were just another cook under the command of some unseen force.
“Nick,” on the other hand, has an altogether noxious bearing on the brand. Like “Bamba” the gorilla—whom Rainforest Cafe describes as “direct with words” but ultimately “a protector”—“Grant’s” counterpart works to bolster Alinea’s business endeavors and defend it against any manner of negative publicity. Though his crop of curly hair and spectacled visage grace the duo’s Made In advertisements, much of “Nick’s” presence is limited to publications, podcasts, and social media. There, he champions Tock: the reservations/ticketing system first adopted by Alinea and, today, used by scores of the world’s greatest restaurants. In fact, “Nick” is the first to brag about how many years it has been since he has even dined at Alinea! Instead, he spends his time engaged in internet flame wars, myopically wielding his company’s analytics as sword and shield against a rogues’ gallery of relative nobodies who make the mistake of criticizing his majesty. For a brand mascot, it’s not exactly a warm and cuddly way to behave. In fact, you think it smacks a bit of insecurity, a rather Trumpian variety coated in technical jargon and a misplaced sense of pride. Yes, “Nick” has helped Alinea achieve a rare level of financial security for a fine dining restaurant. He even, you think, has altered the paradigm for tasting menus altogether, helping make them more akin to ticketed “events” in the eyes of consumers. But, at the end of the day, “Nick’s” remarkable business sense has to be judged against the ultimate quality of his establishments, which—to anyone who looks beyond their first-time novelty value—is sorely lacking.
In summation, while Rainforest Cafe’s mascots are of a freewheelingand colorful variety, Alinea’s two standard-bearers speak to a more somberaesthetic. “Cha Cha,” “Ozzie,” and friends aid in the construction of a senseof fantasy. For, within the restaurant, what could be more outlandish thanthese anthropomorphic figures waddling to and fro with silly grins stretchedacross their faces? The youngest guests, of course, are most prone to mistakingthese mascots for the “real thing.” However, you think everyone in a givenparty can appreciate how the costumed staff members add an extra layer ofimmersion to the already-detailed forest ambiance. While the rest of theemployees at a given Rainforest Cafe location are, surely, dressed for thepart, the presence of the mascots allows them to embrace the role of the “tourguide.” Their short-sleeved shirts, khakis, and boots remind one of safariattire. This uniform, relative to the costumed animals, marks the servers witha sense of otherness relative to the wider environment. Nonetheless, thematching and thematic nature of the clothing makes clear that the employeesoccupy a liminal status between the mysterious rainforest and the payingcustomers. In this manner, mascots like “Cha Cha” make room for the rest of thestaff to adopt a more professional manner of dress and interaction withoutspoiling any larger sense of the theme restaurant experience.
In contrast, mascots like “Grant” and “Nick,” in many ways, make thework of Alinea’s hospitality team that much harder. The former, in almost everysense, embodies “Alinea” itself. It is “Grant’s” personal story, his palate,and his range of transcendent culinary creations that first put the restauranton the map. It is he who seduces viewers watching shows like Chef’s Table, viewerswho come to romanticize his many flourishes on the plate as the product oftortured genius. They work up the nerve to spend $300 per person (before tax,tip, and beverages) on a tasting menu with the trust that they are in the handsof the master. When that evening eventually comes around, most wonder, “where’s‘Grant’”? His eclectic creations are on display, yes, but do they resonate asdeeply when they come from the hand of a flunky? Severed from “Grant’s” presence,his story, does the food not amount to so much song and dance? Some interestingflavors and textures, yes, but nothing that amounts to the “best” thing acustomer has ever tasted. Sure, the staff does their best to perform and explain.But one leaves the restaurant wondering if they quite understood what they wereserved and why. They wonder if the meal might have felt just a bit moreworthwhile with an appearance from the mustachioed mascot who, no doubt, soldthem on the experience to begin with.
And “Nick”? Well, “Nick” is the mascot with dollar signs for eyes. He’sthe monster lurking under the bed when a would-be customer dares ask why theymust pre-pay for their reservation. He’s the specter who haunts patrons—famousor not—who show up on the wrong date and demand special treatment. He’s theunconquerable keyboard warrior who silences all dissent. Ultimately, he’s thedragon guarding Alinea’s hoard of treasure: engorged to the point that he’sforgotten he’s in the business of hospitality altogether. On occasion, one maysee “Nick” rear his head at this or that restaurant or special event. Needlessto say, there are no photo-ops on offer, and don’t be surprised to see him “workthe room” with everyone yet snub you. How is service supposed to thrive in agroup that toils under the shadow of two menacing mascots such as these? Itdoesn’t, of course.
Rainforest Cafe’s mascots help construct the fantasy of the brand, taking pressure off everyday employees and empowering them to “wait tables” (in a familiar fashion) while their patrons remain enthralled by the larger ambiance. The mere presence of “Cha Cha” and pals throughout the space underlines the restaurant’s world-building and confirms the novelty one desires from a theme restaurant. The “heavy lifting,” in a sense, occurs at a structural level: curating a space and filling it with brand ambassadors who carry the weight of crafting memorable experiences for guests. Servers need not roleplay in any excessive fashion, and the food need not blow customers’ minds. For, the mascots and ambiance confirm that Rainforest Cafe’s schtick is delivering an idealized dining experience in the “rainforest,” surrounded by (and interacting with) its many colorful creatures. The restaurant is not a place to sample “rainforest cuisine” or brave the elements in any way that approximates actually subsisting in nature. Rather, visiting the establishment means signing up for a special occasion that is largely ambient in nature. The ever-present mascots, to that effect, occupy a valuable space between the lifeless “scenery” and more conventional wait staff. They form an additional, interactive layer of perception that—even for the mature diner who sees through the ruse—breaks the “fourth wall” of the restaurant experience.
In contrast, it must be said that Alinea’s mascots only serve todetract from the guest experience. “Grant,” for all his genius, is not the sortto assert the aesthetic or culinary value of his menus. He prefers, you think,to let the dishes speak for themselves while undercutting any expectationsregarding his own personality with a grin and a wink. The chef’s mastery oftechnique, his imagination, and his high level of focus are all on display throughoutthe assorted media content published regarding the restaurant. “Grant,” in asense, is idealized long before guests arrive at the restaurant. They have seenpictures and videos of food that surpasses, visually, any comestible encounteredbefore. This “shock and awe” style of visual branding incontrovertibly placesan emphasis on the cuisine, and the sense of wonder the cuisine evokes is thenascribed to “Grant.” Should guests come face to face with him in the kitchen ordining room, the chef’s understated bearing shifts attention back towards thefood. Any lack of warmth, charm, or conscious engagement with the guests isviewed simply as a consequence of his “genius” and the burden it “no doubt” formsregarding the social side of hospitality. Thus, as a mascot, “Grant” forms afeedback loop with his food. Customers are attracted to the colorful cuisine,they come to idealize the “magician” who creates it, but any encounter with theman seems to signal, “don’t look at me, look back at the food.”
“Nick,” in much the same manner as a mascot, ultimately works to placean emphasis on Alinea’s food. In some cases, like the “Cat Cora incident,” hecan be said to have defended an equitable vision of hospitality. Despitehandling the reservation snafu in an ugly manner, “Nick” looked to assert thatAlinea was a restaurant that nobody, no matter how famous they are, could elbowtheir way into. Such a declaration, however subversive his efforts to spin whatwas ultimate a hospitality failure on his end, underscores the value of bookingand paying for a reservation so far in advance. Guests fighting for a covetedticket on Tock are playing the same game as everyone else, no matter theirstatus, “Nick” seemed to signal in his handling of the controversy. This,certainly, bolsters the feeling that one’s reservation is “special.” However,when “Nick” brags about how rarely he dines at Alinea, he seems to say that thefood is so good, so mind-blowing that the kitchen has earned total independence.For whatever reason, he does not need to check in on the experience or probeits value no matter how fiercely he defends the restaurant on social media. Whetherthis trust has been well-earned or is merely drawn from a misplaced sense ofpride can only be known when customers ultimately pay Alinea a visit. As itstands, “Nick,” like “Grant,” does little to forge a hospitable feelingregarding their establishment. The former, through brashness, and the latter,through mystique, leave it up to the tasting menu alone to prove the experience’svalue. Rather than a sense of humility, passion, or “white glove” luxury, theduo—as mascots—symbolize a smug sense of self-assuredness that can only betested by paying the ticket price.
Is it any surprise, then, that Alinea’s hospitality team, taking itscues from their two mascots and leaders, fall so utterly flat in shaping ameaningful guest experience? While Rainforest Cafe’s colorful characters workto charm customers, “Grant” and “Nick” seem to push their patrons away. “Hospitality,”in the sense of making customers feel warm and fuzzy within the restaurantspace, is not their domain. Rather, the duo treats Alinea as if it were afinished product, an institution, whose ironclad quality no longer demands theyplay their part putting on the “show.” (Alinea, you would concede, is aninstitution in terms of longevity; however, its inability to retain key staffand conscious abandonment of classic dishes means that the positivecharacteristics one ascribes to the word “institution” are largely absent). “Grant”and “Nick’s” carefree attitude concerning the guest experience, from theoutside, smacks of confidence: Alinea really is that good. In practice, thegambit puts undue pressure on the everyday front- and back-of-house staff to meet(or exceed) expectations without any assistance from their honchos.
Shrouded in mystery from the top down, customers have little idea whatto expect when entering Alinea. They’ve likely seen some representation of the otherworldlycuisine through media, and they often carry some familiarity regarding “Grant”the head chef. They prepaid for their tasting menu—perhaps the first time sucha thing was demanded of them—and perhaps they tacked on a wine pairing orcookbook to boot. Arriving in Lincoln Park, they step into the greyscaleedifice dreaming of what a $300, $500, or $1,000 per person dinner (pricedependent on seating and supplements) could possibly feel like. The suitedfigures at the host stand are sleek, sharp, and snappy. They lead you from thegreyscale hallway into the greyscale dining room. You take your seat and waitfor the show to begin. Perhaps you have not chosen a beverage pairing, and sothe sommelier stops by: professional, confident, exacting. No detail out ofplace, no lines flubbed, the staff welcomes you with a short speech. “Keep yourarms and legs inside the vehicle,” you almost hear them say. Such movement,such rhythm as the table grows alive: what you thought was this is actuallythat. Everything runs like clockwork so that “Grant’s” coveted creations mayachieve their full titillation. Which is to say, everything in the dining roomfeels stilted and rehearsed, an extension of the inhospitable ethos embodied bythe brand’s mascots.
No, the team at Alinea is not openly snobby (though, if you dig backin your memory to your inaugural visit nearly a decade ago, they surely were).Rather, their manner of socialization is studied and soulless. Charming theguest is just another item on the “to-do list,” situated somewhere betweentending a fake campfire and pulling canvases down from the ceiling. You see,the front-of-house staff is pushed rather hard. They play a more essential partin the movement of the meal than any other restaurant you can name. It isnatural, sensible that they cannot quite linger at every table to make friends.Like “Grant” and “Nick” themselves, niceties must be sacrificed in service ofsome larger vision of what “Alinea” is. Sure, the staff smiles, they crackjokes, and they often find the right openings to garnish guests’ conversationswith a dash of irreverence. Yet it’s a “paint by number” manner of pleasingguests that precludes the ease and presence forming a meaningful connectionwith customers requires. It’s good enough, surely, in service of the largerexperience and all that is demanded of these men and women. But, again, as with“Grant” and “Nick,” a sense of genuine hospitality is sacrificed with theexcuse that the ultimate “performance” will strike guests as worth it.
It is worth noting the distinction here. At Rainforest Cafe, the outersignage, atmosphere, and mascots meld together to shape a meaningful themerestaurant experience. The wait staff, though dressed for the part, need onlybe friendly and accomplish their work competently to ensure guests enjoy the restaurant’sambient elements. At Alinea, by comparison, the muted décor and misanthropicmascots shift attention towards the cuisine. The wait staff, taking their cuefrom the top, perform their work with a high level of precision yet little timefor frivolities. (Those “frivolities,” of course, like making a guest feel “athome” strike closer to the core of hospitality than the most fanciful foodcould ever dream of doing). Thus, it can be said that Alinea’s service—like itsambiance, like its mascots—is channeled towards staging the “money shot” whichthe food itself entails. In this manner, the restaurant really does come closeto a stage performance: the staff being akin to the backstage crew that putsall the pieces in place so that the tasting menu may sing its “solo.”
Of course, such an approach implicitly denies the importance of the “humanelement” in hospitality. The rigors of keeping the “show” on track ensure thatthe “fourth wall” between server and served will never be broken. Such a transcendentmoment requires vulnerability from both parties, and Alinea’s front-of-houseteam barely finds any moment to pause during their performance, let alone letthe mask slip altogether. Likewise, the greyscale tones of the dining room, itsintimacy, and the use (or lack) of lighting throughout the meal emphasize, forthe diner, the sense that they and the other parties are passive observers.
At the end of the day, both Rainforest Cafe and Alinea engage in astyle of hospitality that is thoroughly corporate. The former is familiar:smile, take orders, deliver dishes, provide refills, and let the fantasy ofdining in the rainforest take root. The latter is more involved: smile, tinkerwith the items on the table, put finishing touches on the dishes in an infinitenumber of ways, provide refills, and let the drama of the tasting menu unfoldwith as few kinks as possible. Neither establishment imparts any sense that theguest is being hosted by “someone,” that they are tasting the humble creationsof a craftsman who cooks with heart and soul and imbues those elements into theservice. Neither establishment gives off the impression that the staff is a familyunited by a common culture yet defined by distinct individuals who, in myriadways, may genuinely touch each guest. Instead, for each of these brands, therestaurant forms a monolithic entity where individualism and distinction take abackseat to the larger performance of the theme. At Rainforest Cafe, servers letthe ambiance speak for itself. At Alinea, they let the cuisine do the same. Whetherthis erasure of the “self” vis-à-vis the service experience is worthwhileultimately comes down to how well those accented elements carry the day.
Much in the same manner that the artificial jungle décor, animatednight sky, and cast of mascots enable Rainforest Cafe’s wait staff to succeedwithout putting on any theatrics of their own, the restaurant’s menu featuresstandard American fare that—like the servers—is simply dressed up to fit thetheme. Non-alcoholic frozen drinks like the “Swimming Hole,” “Rainforest Ricky,”and “Brazilian Freeze” are served in collectible cups featuring the disembodiedheads of “Cha Cha” and friends at the top and a small plastic toy sealed in acompartment at the bottom. Another variant of glassware on offer features LEDlights at the bottom to better illuminate the brightly-colored concoctionsunder the darkness of the restaurant’s artificial sky. These beverages, inessence, amount to “tropical” juice and sugar syrup sodas for kids. However,the serving vessels—which customers may choose between and take home—add anelement of personalization to the experience as well as further extending thebrand and its mascots. Even the alcoholic beverages advertised to adults arelisted under a banner proudly declaring, “Buy the drink, keep the glass!” Youcan only imagine that these logo-emblazoned goblets collect dust at the back ofone’s cupboard when all is said and done, yet the novelty, again, allows therestaurant to sell quotidian cocktails at a formidable price while saddling theguest with a take-home advertisement for the brand.
When it comes to Rainforest Cafe’s food, much of the same philosophyreigns. Some items, like the “Rainforest Rascals” (char-grilled mini burgers), “GorillaGrilled Cheese Delight” (American cheese on Texas toast), and “Python Pasta” (standardgarganelli noodles, as far as you can tell) are vanilla variants of theirrespective dishes dressed up in evocative, theme restaurant jargon. Anotheritem, the “Jurassic Chicken Tidbits” offers children the novelty of eating dinosaur-shapedchicken nuggets—but you would wager they are indistinguishable from thesupermarket frozen food variety (and they do not even fit the theme!) The adults’menu features a laundry list of familiar fare like chicken quesadillas, cheesesticks (add buffalo style $2.99), spinach & artichoke dip, chicken strips,grilled shrimp, fried shrimp, fish-n-chips (“served English-style”), shrimptacos, St. Louis style pork spareribs, chicken fried chicken, and key lime pie.This menu, like the kids’, also features an assortment of colorfully-titleddelectations such as the “Aloha Salmon & Shrimp,” “Anaconda Pasta,” “AmazonCorn Chowder,” “China Island Chicken Salad,” “Rainforest Burger,” “Blue MountainChicken Sandwich” and “Jungle Turkey Wrap,” None of the ingredients in thesedishes distinguish them from the most pedestrian examples of the recipes. Manyof them come with “Safari Fries” (that is, plain old French fries) which can besubstituted for “Caribbean” rice or tortilla chips. A “Korean Spicy Stir-Fry,” “Pastalaya(Spicy)” and “Beyond [plant-based] Burger” round out the selections, the threenot quite fitting into the “standard” or “colorful” naming conventioncategories.
Ultimately, Rainforest Cafe’s menu betrays a tension between therestaurant’s devotion to its theme and its efforts to ensure every guest leavespleased. For example, one wonders why the chicken sandwich is given the moniker“Blue Mountain” while the chicken quesadillas, chicken strips, and chickenfried chicken are labelled so plainly. “Blue Mountain,” it seems, denotes alemon grilled chicken paired with bacon, Swiss, roasted red peppers, lettuce,and “zesty Safari sauce” while the latter three chicken dishes are ostensiblyprepared without any frills. So, perhaps, the colorful dish titles do highlighta thematic twist on the recipes. But what makes a corn chowder with bellpeppers, potatoes, bacon, pico de gallo, and tortilla strips an “Amazon CornChowder”? What connection can be drawn between a turkey wrap filled withtomatoes, bacon, lettuce, and Caesar dressing on a flour tortilla and aso-called “Jungle Turkey Wrap”? How does the rainforest theme think to marry sucha diverse range of influences from Korean to English to Caribbean, Creole,Chinese, and Hawaiian? You think the variety of influences it amounts to a caricaturizedexpression of exoticism, a covering of all bases for diners wishing to ventureoutside their comfort zone. These “adventurous” dishes, of course, areundergirded by a mass of ordinary American fare, ensuring those for whom newflavors are anathema can nosh on the most recognizable foods imaginable.
It can then be said that any notion of Rainforest Cafe as a themerestaurant stops short of the food. Yes, the menu’s cosmetic design and itslingo are on-brand, but the substance of the offerings reveals a hedging ofbets. As with the wait staff, the dishes are designed to please while thelarger show of atmosphere and mascots enthralls guests and provides the desirednovelty value. Yes, the beverages—with their collectible receptacles—do abetter job of offering some novelty value. But this is principally as anextension of featuring the brand mascots or—via LED lighting—playing off of theoverarching atmospheric effects in the dining room. It comes as no surprisethat Rainforest Cafe seeks to please parents and their picky kids. Thus, themenu is meant to offer the security familiarity provides alongside some safeexpressions of novelty and one demarcated “(Spicy)” dish for the most adventurousdiners in the lot. The food works to accentuate the restaurant’s ambiance bybeing sure not to step on anybody’s toes. For, at the end of the day, no guestwill feel that the fare—in terms of variety or quality—falls far below that encounteredat restaurants like Chili’s or Applebee’s. In this manner, the value ofvisiting a theme restaurant is preserved against any abrasions culinaryrisk-taking might entail.
The one undeniable exception to this dogma—the one flourish whereRainforest Cafe’s food embraces some of the drama seen throughout itsenvironment—comes with dessert. Yes, there’s a bang average key lime pie onoffer. There’s also a “Tribal Cheesecake,” which, like so many of the provocatively-namedentrées, is altogether indistinguishable from the most standard recipe: “NewYork style cheesecake with creamy whipped topping and garnished with raspberryand chocolate sauces.” However, the pièce de résistance—given topbilling on the dessert menu—has to be the “Sparkling Volcano.” Described as “agiant, rich chocolate brownie cake stacked up high, served warm with vanillaice cream, creamy whipped topping and topped with caramel and chocolate sauces,”the item arrives at the table with a lit sparkler. Like the light-up beverages,the presence of the firework is particularly engrossing when offset by thedusky rainforest environment and artificial night sky. Of course, the dish’sconstituent elements amount to a fairly typical brownie sundae. However, the “SparklingVolcano’s” very structure connects the restaurant’s comestibles to its overalltheme in a manner otherwise limited to superficial labeling.
In truth, both beverages and dessert present terra firma forRainforest Cafe to indulge in a bit of theatrics. Nearly all customers can beexpected to order a drink—alcoholic or not—served in one of the restaurant’scollectible cups. And there is little chance an imbiber will be anything butpleased with their pleasantly sweet concoction. In the same manner, the “SparklingVolcano” beckons customers to indulge in the most classic of combinations: warmchocolate brownie with cold vanilla ice cream. Even relative to the key limepie and the cheesecake—crowd-pleasers in their own right—the victual volcano scratchesan itch that nearly every customer will find appealing. The beverages and “SparklingVolcano,” in essence, form the biggest “buckets” likely to catch the interestof the greatest number of guests. Thus, they merit a bit of extra panache—thatis to say, they are worthy of investment and standardization at the corporatelevel because they are viewed as surefire hits. The rest of the menu, beingcharacterized by its breadth, offers less chance at specialization. Rather thantinker with recipes or presentations of savory food that might turn offcustomers who are merely there for the “show,” the brand channels its creativeenergy towards the ambiance and just a couple menu items that most are sure toorder, most are sure to be pleased by, and that easily meld with one’senjoyment of the overall space.
Alinea, as you have highlighted, eschews the kind of trappings thatcharacterize the Rainforest Cafe experience. The décor is understated, themascots are unplugged from shaping the guest experience, and the servicesacrifices charm for precision. All the attention, ultimately, is shifted ontothe tasting menu itself, and guests are primed to be absolutely blown away bywhat occurs before them during the course of the meal. While Rainforest Cafe’s plainfood—with the exception of the “Sparkling Volcano”—stands in the shadow of itsenvironment, Alinea’s cuisine casts a shadow so deep and dark as to justify thedereliction of better leadership and hospitality. Of course, it is hard to findfault with Alinea’s overall hospitality other than to say what it lacks:warmth, ease, presence, personalization, and a sense of singularity rather thanduplication. These subjective, emotional elements are sacrificed in service ofbuilding a sense of drama that the cuisine, ultimately, must “cash in” on. Ifsuccessful, this build-up and release of tension is valuable (and thoroughly “emotional”)in its own way. If unsuccessful, the guest is left to wonder if they’ve beenduped—if all the sense of mystery, all the branding of the “genius” chefbending the rules of gastronomy, amounts to a pretentious parlor game.
One knows and feels Rainforest Cafe’s value as a theme restaurantbefore ever spending a penny there. Alinea’s impenetrable essence (and thevalue thereof), in contrast, can only be judged in the afterglow of the meal. Therestaurant resists easy criticism, that is for sure, but you think that some ofits secrets may be unraveled through the lens presently being applied. To avoidretreading the ground that your previous treatment of Alinea covered, you willkeep your engagement with Alinea’s cuisine grounded in the theme restaurantcomparison this article entails.
Stepping into the restaurant’s ground floor dining room—known as “TheGallery”—the greyscale tones which dominate Alinea’s overall design are offset.Guests are led to sit at a long, communal table fitted with a most-elaboratecenterpiece and all its accompanying regalia. One evening, the theme may beSalvador Dalí’s Les dîners de Gala: the table being bedecked withaccents of gold and red velvet, antique picture frames, candelabras, and allmanner of aged Continental bric-a-brac. Another night, guests may hear theirfeet crunch against a layer of fallen leaves strewn about the floor as thetable evokes an autumn harvest theme. Still, on other occasions, the scenealtogether resembles a fantasy world: an ethereal mountain of cloth stretchesthe length of the table like a puff of cloud, yet the vivid pink lightsilluminating it from underneath give off an extraterrestrial sensation.Music—be it classical for Dalí or more mystic and opaque—helps further set themood. To match the centerpiece, each guest has set before them an assortment ofchina: fancy plates, saucers, cloches, and lidded bowls containing unseensurprises. Bites of food may even be dangling down from the ceiling, unnoticeduntil attention is later drawn towards them.
Once all the paying guests for a given Gallery seating have arrived,the “show” proper begins. A member of Alinea’s staff welcomes the assembledparties to the restaurant, says a few words about the evening’s chosen theme,and advises you how to approach the opening assortment of amuse-bouches. Thismay include, as just mentioned, drawing guests’ eyes upward to perceive thatmorsel suspended in midair. Or, he or she may simply note the time-sensitivenature of a certain hot or cold bite. As this speech unfolds, the rest of thestaff snaps into action. Sequentially, in a synchronized fashion, they traveldown both sides of the table removing the aforementioned lids and cloches.Other members of the team deposit pieces of finger food or dollops of sauce atpreordained spots. The sensation, you might say, is of the restaurant, the diningroom, the theme, all coming to life at a moment’s notice. And then, just as fast,it all dies down. The music turned back up, beverages are topped off, and thefeast begins.
The amuse-bouches served often have something to do with the openingtheme. The Dalí “dinner party,” for example, is defined by Alinea’s renditionof the “oasis leek pie” found (and pictured) in the artist’s cookbook. Thoughtheir replication of the recipe is positively diminutive, the design is a deadringer for the original, and it serves to connect the trappings of the theme towhat is occurring on guests’ actual plates. Other bites, like a dried beetcracker or an oyster on the half shell paired with escargot are harder toplace. Still, they embrace a sense of whimsy: the oyster is served on ice withinan even larger oyster shell while another amuse-bouche made of red fruitleather is tied into a bow and served on top of an actual red bow. However,while visually arresting, these opening encounters with Alinea’s food arealmost never transcendent. They tantalize without sending your pleasure sensorsup to “ten.” They make you think “hm,” rather than “wow!” And, perhaps, this isthe sort of introduction the restaurant wishes to provide. The idea that guestsshould “expect the unexpected” (be it from above, below, inside, or outside thetable and its wares) is reinforced. Further, the greyscale façade fades todisplay more color, more personality, more quirkiness that customers might havefelt was under the surface but could not quite glean before dining at Alinea.
The opening salvo having been launched, the front of house staffbeckons the guests to follow them down a short hallway into Alinea’s kitchen.There, they are treated to a welcoming cocktail and another bite of food while,behind them, the back of house team toils away in a frenzy of activity. Thistrip to the “engine room” of the experience, so to speak, underlines the hardwork that goes on behind the scenes despite how coolly customers are receivedout front. Seeing the staff engaged in ceaseless activity—tweezers in tow—evokessome sense of “Grant’s” idealized image. The sense of precision and focus—ofthe “genius” or “geniuses” executing cuisine as if the kitchen were CERN—ispalpable. “Grant” himself, the mascot in the flesh, might even be there in somerare instances. On such occasions, he does not engage the guests but, rather,goes about his usual activity. He will, of course, “grant” pictures to thosewho are brave enough to bother him (and, in truth, he does so with no trace ofdisturbance).
Nonetheless, the sense one gets from the kitchen during this earlyinterlude seems to confirm what visitors already thought about the restaurantand its head chef “mascot.” He and the rest of the culinary team keep theirheads down, being unerringly focused on the execution of their menu. Any senseof self-expression or personality is put into the food, which promises to blowpatrons away as a means of overcoming the lack of warmth that pervades theestablishment. Thus, while the field trip to Alinea’s kitchen could serve toforge some connection with the cooks crafting the guests’ cuisine, therestaurant—instead—uses the occasion to confirm customers’ expectations. Therestaurant is not a place for warmth, for “old world” hospitality, but standsas something closer to a laboratory. Its staff—from dishwasher to chef—are single-mindedin their mission to deliver the tasting menu in a strict, timely manner. Tothat effect, they dispense with the niceties one expects from the more intimatekitchen visits bestowed upon patrons at other three Michelin starestablishments. “Trust us,” they seem to say, “the dishes you receive will dothe talking, will strike the soul in the way you might desire.” The trend,then, is clear. From social media, to Chef’s Table; from one’s entranceinto the restaurant to their trek into the kitchen, Alinea asks to be judgedsolely on the weight of the food served. The staff, while highly competent, canlikewise only be judged on how well they deliver that food. Any lack of emotion—ofgenuine, vulnerable, transcendent hospitality—can be understood as somethingconsciously sacrificed in service, also, of that food.
This, of course, prompts one clear question: does the food measure up?Does it transmit emotion in a manner that makes up for its absence in theliving, breathing men and women that make up Alinea’s staff? Is all themystery, all the abstraction, the ticket price, the greyscale, and thearrogance of “Nick” grounded in a tasting menu that is truly revelatory?
Such questions will have to wait as, upon their return from thekitchen, customers ascertain that some sleight of hand has taken place. Thecenterpiece—that long, themed dining room table they had just sat along—is nomore, having been replaced with a more familiar assortment of two- and four-topsthroughout the room. Usually, the trick elicits a sigh of relief, as somepatrons were led to believe they’d spend the entirety of their meal in communalseating. Other guests simply smile at the gag—the sudden transformation of thespace spelling, once again, that “things are not what they seem” inside Alinea’shallowed halls. The reversion from the Salvador Dalí or floating cloudaesthetic to the restaurant’s familiar greyscale tones signals that thethematic séance has come to its conclusion. Whatever comes next, then, can bethought of as a more timeless, sincere expression of the restaurant’s ethos.
With the weight of the experience being placed on the cuisine alone,Alinea’s tasting menu typically gets off to a decadent start as a means ofasserting its value. The food—in both form and flavor—need prove that theunderwhelming ambiance, misanthropic mascots, and stilted hospitality—ratherthan being flaws—ultimately work in a complementary fashion. To wit, the restaurant’sthought process is that the food—expressive and dramatic—may shine morebrightly in the shadow of subterfuge and smug self-assurance.
Roe, sturgeon or otherwise, presents a safe means of regaling guestsright at the start. On one occasion, you are served a composition of coconutsponge cake, lychee, white pepper, and arctic char roe: white on white on whiteon white all served atop a speckled, white-patterned plate. On anotheroccasion, the kitchen cuts right to the chase, serving a gold leaf crêpe filledwith hazelnut cream and folded shut, so to speak, with a weighty dollop ofcaviar. This latter preparation is served on a plate featuring a white latticepattern, which—rather than matching the components—allows the hues of gold andgreen to glisten. Needless to say, these are pretty, rather delicate creationsbefitting the steadfast sense of focus customers bore witness to in thekitchen. The dishes make for lovely photos (as totemic luxury ingredientsalways do), but how do they taste? “Good,” not “great,” as you are apt to say. “Hm,that was nice” rather than “wow, that was amazing!” to clarify further.
Moving on, now arrives before you another bit of magic. The serverplaces a bowl filled with fruit at the center of the table, the lights aredimmed, and another member of the staff pours an unknown liquid into the bowl.Suddenly, the fruit centerpiece begins to froth, and wisps of mist—or perhapssomething closer to fog—envelop the table, teasing their way around waterglasses and wine stems then stretching out onto the floor. As guests’ eyes aredrawn to the drama before them, a team of servers place a range of receptaclesaround the table. This set piece is titled “Flavors and Aromas of Thailand,” orsomething to that effect, and it featured on Alinea’s tasting menu for morethan a year. Other than the centerpiece, it comprises several bites of food. Onefeatures scallop, mustard, and chili (inspired by kaeng, a sour curry),another is composed of chicken skin, burnt peanut, and makrut lime, and the last—servedas a gel which guests suck through a glowing glass tube—cleanses the palatewith flavors of lemongrass.
As before, the bites are visually arresting and tantalizing; however,they fail to make any lasting impact, to strike deeply at the pleasure centers inthe manner a sumptuous meal most often entails. Four courses into the menu, andcustomers still get the feeling they are still being teased. The “show,”certainly, is shocking—vis-à-vis a “typical” restaurant experience—but why allthe hullaballoo for a meager few morsels of food? (Morsels, in truth, that winktowards a nostalgia for Thailand that few diners on any given evening possess).One would rather, you think, feast on the fruit inside the centerpiece thancontort oneself to appreciate its accompanying bites. They’re pleasant, yes,but not pleasing, nor comforting, nor soothing in any sense. One wonders, atbest, “that’s it?” At worst, with feelings of hunger still gnawing nearly anhour into proceedings, one begins to wonder if they’ve been gypped, if thatpromised payoff of virtuoso victuals will simply go up in smoke like the fruitbowl itself.
The next course—another mainstay at Alinea which you have seen in acouple iterations—represents a particular nadir for the restaurant. Langoustine—or,on some occasions, scallop—is dehydrated and transformed into a thin sheet ofpaper. That paper is perched within a bowl of bouillabaisse broth whereupon theguest, using their utensils, reconstitute the crustacean into a kind offlavored pulp. Accompanying the soup is a thin roll of nori filled with rouille,a Provençal sauce (likened to mayonnaise) characterized by saffron andtypically added to a bouillabaisse. While it is intriguing to see a traditionaldish deconstructed to such a degree, the individual parts of this presentationfall desperately short of the “whole,” complete pleasure one expects from fishstew. Why take langoustine or scallop, which offer two of the finest mouthfeelsof all ingredients, and deny their texture altogether? The paper is an interestingnovelty, yes, but the fun of crunching it into the bowl (if one can even termit “fun”) is altogether divorced from any achievement of flavor. You could excusethis denial of the shellfishes’ native form is the bouillabaisse broth, say,struck you as being the most intense, most succulent example you have evertasted. Yet its depth of flavor is bang average, and one wonders why so manybeautiful elements were tortured in pursuit of the “edible paper” novelty one grewtired of as a child.
By the time the next presentation arrives, customers have no doubtreached their wit’s end. And, when the lights go down once more, they mightsuspect yet another example of style over substance is afoot. Instead, theyreceive a jet black tendril of octopus that is nearly impossible to discern inthe darkness. It is coated in a gochujang barbecue sauce and served withscallion and black lime (both, as well, completely hidden under the so-called “ink”).The octopus, unlike the ill-fated langoustine, does not see its texture needlesslyadulterated. Rather, it is wonderfully rich, faintly (and pleasingly) chewy,and altogether decadent. Comprising no more than two or three bites, the dishis gone in an instant: inhaled by patrons who had been feasting on air up untilthat point. But it’s a step in the right direction, a dish that can standagainst some of the greatest octopus preparations seen elsewhere. One mightask, “why doesn’t Alinea fashion each of its dishes in this manner?” No answeris readily apparent, as the menu reverts towards frippery.
There’s a presentation of corn chips (filled with a corn mousse madeto look like kernels) alongside a bowl featuring “variations of corn” (a blendof several melt-in-your-mouth pellets formed from liquid nitrogen) with Benton’sbacon. A “Thanksgiving stuffing” flavored cheesecake bite, also, arrives hiddenwithin a centerpiece comprised of thick autumn foliage. Yet another dishshowcases a variety of heirloom beans—dressed with flavored foam—alongside a “bone-in”bite of barbecue rabbit served on a hot coal set within a hollowed-out treetrunk. And, in one of Alinea’s longstanding tableside tricks, a small “campfire”lit at the center of the table is revealed to have a sous vide potato (or,sometimes, a yam) buried in the salt crust beneath its embers. The tuber iscarefully removed, cleaned, and butchered before being plated with a siphonedlittleneck clam chowder, Old Bay, and house Tabasco. While such dishes aredesigned to tickle guests’ nostalgia, any sense of connection to collectiveAmerican culture is merely window dressing that empowers the kitchen to showoff a range of techniques while remaining rooted and legible.
More abstract, simply-plated preparations—like an asparagus saladtopped with a dusting of ibérico powder or a composition of matsutake mushroom,foie gras, smoked tea, and blueberry glass—continue to appear throughout the meal.However, if one thing unites all the dishes—regardless of how involved (or not)their presentation may be—it is an obsession with textural transformation, eventhe layering of several textures of the same ingredient, that—nonetheless—failto achieve a greater depth of flavor for all their intricacy. In some sense,twisting a piece of seafood or produce into so many unrecognized forms betraysan inability to look at it straight in the eye and celebrate its essence. Alinea,no doubt, feels it is their duty to push the boundaries of form, to deconstructassociations of color and texture that may ultimately serve to pigeonhole particularingredients. Yet, in terms of flavor—that most visceral sensation that standsat the heart of dining as a unique art form—the restaurant rarely convincescustomers that its breaks from canonical cooking are worth the fuss. Why takesomething simple, true, and beautiful only to tie it in a knot because you can?
The last of Alinea’s savory courses looks to hedge its bets by leaninginto a sense of nostalgia that—while nominally present—is altogether errantthroughout the meal. The dish, which in its first form was inspired byTournedos Rossini (a classic dish attributed to Carême), has—morerecently—taken inspiration from Steak Diane (considered a more broadly “Continental”dish developed roughly a century later). No matter the trappings, this portionof the meal represents the restaurant’s rendition of “meat and potatoes.” Theset piece begins with a bit of music—either a piece by Rossini himself or a dittyfrom Steak Diane’s era. Then, Alinea’s executive chef—not “Grant,” mindyou—parades around the dining room with a proud piece of A5 wagyu beef. Notlong after, it hits the hot pan at a mobile cooking station perched near the hallwayclosest to the kitchen, perfuming the room with the intoxicating aroma ofmelting fat. The steak rests while its respective (Rossini or Diane) sauce is prepared.Then it is portioned, plated with an accompanying mushroom, truffle, and/orfoie gras morsel, sauced, then served.
Whereas many of the restaurant’s presentations draw on nostalgia (orsimply special effects) in service of rather unconventional bites of food,Alinea’s steak course applies their tricks of the trade towards delivering oneof fine dining’s most traditional forms. There can be no doubt that the pieceof wagyu served is good. It disintegrates delightfully on the tongue, and thepurity of its beef flavor—accented only by salt—forms a most fitting, mostclassic bedfellow with either the Rossini (a Madeira demi-glace) or Diane(brandy or sherry flambé) sauce. But, after needlessly complicating so manyother recipes throughout the course of the tasting menu, can Alinea reallyredeem itself so easily?
For such a polarizing, forward-thinking restaurant, using A5 wagyumeans drawing on the laziest of luxury tropes. It’s a totemic ingredient parexcellence, and it so often trades the deeper satisfaction of beefier, meatierflavor for a fetishization of that precious marbling. Moreover, being served atiny slab of “A5 wagyu,” as is done at Oriole, at Yūgen, and at Ever (to name only a few), smacks oflaziness. This is not “snow beef” or “olive beef” or one of myriad moreinteresting designations of Japanese beef that demonstrate greater intention insourcing. It’s the same old cut served around the country for the past decade,served in the most traditional of ways, so as to offer a cop out, an olivebranch, offered to diners left disappointed by all that preceded it. And, youshould be clear, it’s a fine preparation with an enjoyable presentation. But itis in no way transcendent and must, instead, be read cynically as a means ofcurrying favor with guests for whom all else—up until that point—has fallenflat.
Rounding the bend into dessert, Alinea’s sweeter offerings engage manyof the same tropes as the savory side of the menu. In the nostalgic realm, there’sa sassafras- (a key ingredient in root beer) flavored s’more, a piece of sweetpotato tempura glazed with Buffalo Trace bourbon (skewered on a cinnamonstick), and a play on a strawberry Dove Bar served alongside a dish ofstrawberry and burrata. One course, which itself is titled “Nostalgia,”features liquid-filled orbs reminiscent of caramel corn that are served atop acarton of actual caramel corn. In the same manner, a bite of puffed,crisped Japanese gold melon is presented perched atop a whole piece of thefruit—rind intact. Here, relative to the savory food, the restaurant seems abit less fussy, a bit more playful. When fitting an unfamiliar ingredient (likethe sassafras or strawberry/burrata combination) into a familiar form, theyensure that form is legible and comfortable. Likewise, when transforming afamiliar ingredient (like the caramel corn or melon) into an unfamiliar form,they opt for a presentation that connects the bite to its usual depiction. Nodoubt, all the dishes listed amount to meager few bites; however, they succeedin showcasing the kitchen’s creativity without descending into the “shock andawe” seen earlier in the menu. Which is to say, while the savory courses camewrapped in so many layers of flavor, textural, and visual novelty as to altogetherapproach abstraction, it is clear, here, what Alinea is doing and why.
In much the same fashion, the restaurant’s more abstract dessertssucceed in surprising without polarizing. There’s a presentation of concentricbowls—the inner-most one containing yellow miso, matcha shortbread, and sweetpotato custard transformed into all manner of powder, gummy, and confectionary forms.These textures—while hard to digest when applied towards ingredients that lackany resonance with the guest—succeed when embracing such pleasant flavors.Alinea’s famous “balloon,” of course, lands somewhere between nostalgia andabstraction. Its form—an actual, floating balloon complete with string—cancertainly be mistaken for the real thing. Yet, to press one’s lips against the “latex,”to inhale then chew all the way down to the end of the “string” is altogethersurreal. In that sense, it might strike closer to Dalí, to a playful sort of mind-bending,than an impenetrable abstraction. Ultimately, the flavor sensation is one of standardgreen apple taffy, with the weight of the “trick” being placed on the ediblenature of the form and the experiential effect consuming helium in a threeMichelin star restaurant provides.
Alinea’s tasting menu—as long as you have dined there—ends with asuperlative expression of abstraction. Back in the day, a silicone mat would beplaced over guests’ tables and the two most senior chefs in the kitchen (oftenincluding “Grant” himself) would drizzle a kaleidoscope of sauces, then place arange of bits, bobs, and doodads, across and around the “canvas.” It was anintimate and enrapturing experience that served as a touching capstone todinner, no matter how one felt about the nature of the food served.
Nowadays, diners in The Gallery are subject to a communaldemonstration wherein the “canvases” are pulled down from the ceiling, havingfloated above patrons’ heads throughout the meal. Each is placed at the centerof the table, the music is set, the smoke machine is switched on, and a stream ofwhat seems to be the entire back of house staff each, in turn, adds theirflourish in the creation of the final dessert. What this variant of thepresentation lacks in intimacy, it gains in showmanship. The whole performancetakes little more than a couple minutes, but it commands your attention withtotal sensory overload. The dish that is ultimately served on the canvas cancontain a range of flavors from carrot and cider to cranberry and maple. Theelements take a variety of forms from creamy to crunchy, slick to powdered, makingprodigious use of liquid nitrogen. It all tastes pleasant—and exploring therange of substances strewn across the canvas always feels affirmingly childlike—but,you think, who wouldn’t rather tuck into a chocolate soufflé instead?
Having explored Alinea’s cuisine as thoroughly—perhaps moreso—thanyour actual review of the establishment, the question of comparing it toRainforest Cafe can now be appropriately tackled. As you have alreadyelucidated, Rainforest Cafe utilizes its signage, setting, and mascots todivert attention from ordinary—even middling—food and empower the frontlinestaff to operate efficiently (without any requisite roleplaying). The themerestaurant asserts the value of its experience via comprehensive world-building,allowing the comestibles—save for some kitschy naming conventions—to recedeinto the background and play things safe. The only obvious thematic connectionson the menu—beverages served in ostentatious glassware and a pyrotechnicbrownie sundae—are sure not to ruffle any feathers given their indulgentingredients. In this manner, the restaurant transcends its traditional role asa place of sustenance and transforms into a multisensory space where foodmerely grounds the idealized experience of “dining in nature” as, ostensibly, satisfyinga basic need. Rainforest Cafe, in a manner which is endemic to the themerestaurant form, serves up entertainment with a side of fries. It amounts to asweeping, starlit stage for celebratory meals where even the most backwardspalate will not feel out of place.
In many ways, Alinea achieves the same effect as Rainforest Cafe whileembodying the inverse of all its values. Rather than displaying any obvious signage,Alinea maintains an austere, mysterious façade on North Halstead Street inLincoln Park. Its interior—rather any foliage, aquariums, or artificial nightsky—features greyscale tones and uninspired abstract artwork. The restaurant’smascots—“Grant,” the genius magician, and “Nick,” the bean counter—fade intothe background rather than work to enliven the experience through forging anemotional connection with guests. Yes, the mascots possess a pride in whatAlinea does—but not so much that they are willing to sing the restaurant’spraises (or, in “Nick’s” case, even dine there routinely). Ultimately, they serveto wrap the establishment in yet another layer of mystery, asserting itsfundamental worth without embodying—like “Cha Cha” and friends—any of itsessential values. Alinea’s hospitality team takes its cue from these mascots,operating with choreographed precision and rehearsed one-liners without everstriking the soul. They, too, operate with a smug assurance as to therestaurant’s value without any of the humility or sincere self-expression thatmake service encounters memorable. This makes for a thoroughly “corporate” hospitalityculture whose rigors are channeled towards the efficient delivery of thetasting menu. This, in a sense, is similar to Rainforest Cafe’s own corporate hospitalityculture (albeit, one where servers’ efficiency lends itself to guests’enjoyment of the larger space).
Whereas Rainforest Cafe’s trappings tantalize guests for theexperience to come, Alinea’s “outer shell” is altogether foreboding. As withmost luxury marketing, Alinea understands that to try too hard or spell out itsimplicit value is to ruin the illusion altogether. Of course, this strategy ofimpenetrability is offset by media portrayals of the restaurant and covetedratings from local, national, and international critics. Social media,likewise, provides Alinea with a ceaseless guerrilla marketing operation mannedby customers seeking, retroactively, to justify the price paid for theirexperience. Dining at the restaurant is commonly held to be a “status symbol,”and, thus, one need not know exactly what they are signing up for when choosingto pay the ticket price. Thus, a dichotomy emerges: while Rainforest Cafe makesthe nature of its promised experience altogether obvious (since the food lackssalience), Alinea shrouds its experience so as to place the greatest emphasispossible on its cuisine.
This obfuscation, in essence, forms a convenient alibi for Alinea’spervasive lack of warmth. Under the guise of delaying guests’ gratification, ofkeeping them on pins and needles until the “show” begins, “Grant” and his gangcan indulge in any number of hospitality sins. The austere façade, thecloistered and cold greeting at the host’s stand, and the greyscale dining room(replete with pretentious abstract art) all seem to say, “we are a serious,dignified restaurant worthy of your respect [read: your hard-earned shekels]!” Ratherthan good cheer and deference, patrons find themselves face-to-face with three-Michelin-starredrobots: slender figures clad uniformly in dark attire, programmed to smile andlaugh on command, yet ceaseless in their devotion to delivering “theexperience.” In some sense, the staff is hard-coded to think that the onlyvalue a meal at Alinea may provide comes from guests’ passive enjoyment of thekitchen’s carefully choreographed creations.
This is to say, the restaurant contends that multisensory smoke andmirrors can succeed in replacing the “human element” of hospitality. Alinea assertsthat the presence of a chef-patron, managing partner, or longstanding winedirector is altogether unnecessary so long as the dishes come out accuratelyand spectacularly. Perfectly packaged, prepaid, and replicated ad nauseum,dinner at the restaurant demands nothing more from the staff than that they hittheir marks and say their lines night after night—no matter who’s in the audience.Sure, the script may change a smidge in line with a given guest’s demographicinformation. There may even be room for the occasional quip or clever ad lib. Yet,even the greatest interpersonal flourishes from team Alinea come across asconcocted, as something shoehorned into the experience in a nominal fashion totranscend the cookie-cutter nature of the meal. Relative to the somber mood whichprevails in the dining room, these moments—no doubt—shine. However, they often succeednot due to their sincerity but, rather, thanks the stark contrast they drawfrom the stilted interactions which characterize most of one’s time in thespace.
Ultimately, these little jokes and “meta” moments do not represent anyreal breaking of the “fourth wall” of fine dining. Instead, they falter as ham-fistedefforts to astroturf the experience with some semblance of soul. Of course,these genuine, transcendent hospitality moments cannot be artificially constructed.They only sprout when conditions (read: culture) allow for the cultivation andexpression of the “true self” in service encounters. Clearly, neither “Grant”nor “Nick” possess that interpersonal spark, and, thus, the hospitality atAlinea—for all its precision—comes across as flat-footed. Any attempts to zestthings up at the table—the machinations of control freaks looking to reducediverse human encounters to their lowest common dominator—amount to putting lipstickon a pig. It’s Alinea’s culture, down to the very roots, that is poisonous, andany attempt to prove otherwise strikes you as so much blatherskite: “look athow much fun we’re having,” chirps the poor soul who forgot, ages ago, what “fun”even is.
Guests are made to believe that this hollow hospitality is simply partof the trade off, a consequence of the rigorous training required to conjuresuch magical tasting menus night after night. Sure, the staff seems a bitpsychotic—strung out in pursuit of the plethora of tasks to be done—but waituntil you taste the food! No matter the hang up (with regards to the hospitalityrendered), Alinea steadfastly promises that the end product is well worth it.No matter the denial of dining’s essential human element, it can all be said tobe in service of the “show.” When guests—on the hook for hundreds, if notthousands of dollars—finally take their seats, they are treated to a dinnerlike never before. But just what, exactly, are they being served? Parlortricks, pomp and circumstance, song and dance, smoke and mirrors, and jabberwockywith a side of cynicism.
Yes, Alinea’s food is hard to draw any parallels to. Moleculargastronomy (a moniker which, itself, has become a pejorative term formicroscopic portions of fussy tweezer food) means little to a new generation ofdiners who lack any grounding in the European dining tradition. To wit, how canone appreciate the deconstruction of a dish or the transformation of aningredient for which they have no reference point? Yes, the techniquesthemselves are impressive. The application of scientific inquiry towards therefinement of flavor and texture will never go away. But the most talentedcontemporary chefs treat molecular gastronomy only as one of many tools to drawon when telling a story of place, time, and personage through food.
Showcasing novel techniques is rarely treated as an end in itself—infact, you would say such a method approaches culinary malpractice if therestaurant in question has not made clear (like, for example, Mugaritz) thatthe $300 one is paying for a tasting menu will go towards experimentationrather than the pursuit of pleasure. No, the best molecular gastronomyrestaurants you have visited—Somni, minibar, and Atera—were brimming with charmand good humor. The chefs, though from Spain and Denmark respectively, mingledtechnical virtuosity with a good dose of nostalgia. To dine at these restaurantsnever felt like a series of “tech demos” but, rather, like having a dalliance withthe idealized “geniuses” in the kitchens. They were not withholding figures (à la “Grant,” whose menus speaknearly nothing of himself), but proper chef-patrons who had mastered the mostadvanced techniques so as to direct them towards pleasing customers. In thispursuit, personal story, shared nostalgia, and all manner of “classic” diningtropes are employed to ensure success. Molecular gastronomy forms a boon, not atether, towards crafting the best dining experience possible.
In contrast,at Alinea, every sacrifice is made for the sake of showcasing the moleculargastronomy—guests be damned! Warmth of atmosphere and service—as you havediscussed extensively—are denied in favor of setting the stage for “Grant’s”culinary creations. And the food, when it does arrive, is sure to shockvisually but rarely, if ever, regales the palate. Presentations take precedence,and they seem to be tailored more towards taking photos—towards perpetuatingthe guerilla public relations work “Grant” and “Nick” feel is beneath them asowners—than enhancing one’s enjoyment of the food. Guests are given a kaleidoscopeof multicolored bites of varying temperatures and textures—hidden in all mannerof receptacles from floor to ceiling—set to music, smoke, and helium-spikedchipmunk voices. But are they given anything good to eat?
Though “Grant”contended that he would never served “Black Truffle Explosion” or “Hot Potato,Cold Potato” again post-renovation, both of these “Alinea 1.0” bites have featuredas cameos at “Alinea 2.0” over the past couple years. Truth be told, no dishfrom “Alinea 2.0” has ever come close to competing with these two classics.Yes, the balloon has become something of a signature, and it makes for amost-wonderful “moment” in the dining room. Yet, in terms of flavor, itpresents nothing more than the most average apple taffy. Likewise, the “tabledessert,” though having changed in the manner of its presentation, has failedto feature any groundbreaking constituent pieces as part of the new form. However,you must say that it was never quite delicious or substantial enough to form afitting end to the meal, either at “1.0” or “2.0.”
“BlackTruffle Explosion” and “Hot Potato, Cold Potato” were small—you might even sayinconspicuous—bites that struck guests with their intensity of flavor and resonatedeven more deeply through how they enveloped the palate. The former, a raviolo,burst on entry and coated one’s mouth with a concentration of truffle thatrivaled whole plates of pasta. The latter, taken in a manner more akin to ashot, used a sudden temperature contrast to accent a creamy, impossibly richthimble of “potato soup.” In both dishes, all the “action” occurs in guests’mouths, with pleasure principally achieved in the realm of the palate.
“Alinea 2.0,” if you are to describe it using one dish, can be defined by the “Crystal Clear Pumpkin Pie.” That is to say, the restaurant traded excitement on the plate and on the tongue for tricks of a purely visual kind. The clear pumpkin pie tastes like nothing more than an altogether average example of the form. Even the principal trick—turning the “pumpkin filling” translucent—is much ado about nothing (for, we all know pumpkin pie, like the ubiquitous “pumpkin spice,” is simply a vehicle for sugar and a set assortment of seasonings). No, the “Crystal Clear Pumpkin Pie” betrays a restaurant that sacrificed making shockingly pleasing food in order to sling visually pleasing shite on social media and in non-culinary publications. Everything served at Alinea today can be understood as a triumph of “style” over “substance.”
Usingmolecular gastronomy to craft dishes that rival traditional forms of cookery (interms of flavor) is quite difficult. “Grant” has used up all his “genius,” and hisflunkies—in turn—have only bastardized the restaurant’s cuisine more and morewith time. So, the obvious thing to do is twist Alinea from being a greatrestaurant into a marketable “brand.” This means abandoning any pretense ofdelivering pleasure and pumping out as many superficially “novel” creations asthey can. Change an ingredient’s color, change its texture, shroud it in fog,bury it in ash, but don’t ever bother with that deplorable old thing calledpleasure! As long as a dish’s flavor is not altogether off-putting, themajority of guests are certain to get lost in its presentation and neverinterrogate its ultimate value. For, as “Nick” has made clear before, Alineahas little need of repeat customers. Rather, the restaurant is content to dressup uninspired bites of food with a boatload of frills, ensure guests get allthe pictures they need, and send them out the door with the sense—like theworst caricature of any abstract art—that to be disappointed is to admit theydidn’t “get it.”
Myriadelements of the Alinea experience—smug, withholding, and contrary to all thatmakes dining transcendent—work to aggrandize (“aggrantize?”) food that, at theend of the day, falls completely flat. Patrons, many of whom lack the requisiteexperience to confidently critique a “three Michelin star” meal, are gaslitinto thinking the problem lies with them. Little matter, for the whole tastingmenu revolves more around a series of presentational set pieces than it doesany attempt to deliver phenomenal flavor. So long as guests get their picturesof the kitchen, the balloon, and the table dessert, they can brag to theirfriends about what a “special” experience they had. When asked about the food,they may reply that it was “interesting,” maybe that the steak was “so good.”But it becomes rather clear that there is no culinary merit to what therestaurant is doing, no real effort to either educate or amaze. Alineais no longer a temple of gastronomy. It is, instead, a despicable den ofconspicuous consumption, a most cynical of restaurants—altogether detached fromthe heart and soul of hospitality—that has contrived a way to sell customersboth literal and figurative “hot air.”
In essence, dining at the restaurant comes closer to visiting a stageset (at a community theater) than any serious engagement with the art ofdining. Does that ring any bells? In the final analysis, you think the tiesthat bind Rainforest Cafe to Alinea are now as clear as day. In fact, you thinkAlinea is far worse than Rainforest Cafe because it delivers much of the sameeffect shrouded in a sea of pretension. While the former could not be moreclear about its value proposition (and the small role food plays therein), thelatter has contrived a way to avoid pleasing guests (with the rudiments of genuinehospitality) while carrying itself with such smug self-assurance, such unearnedauthority that any dissatisfaction felt with the food is cast as a personalfailing of the guest.
Both establishments—while ostensibly restaurants—engage principally in world-building (rather than pleasing palates). They both amount, ultimately, to offering a purely atmospheric pleasure—except that Alinea charges far more and makes you pretend that the food being served is in any way relevant. Like children staring up at Rainforest Cafe’s artificial night sky (or shaking from the booms and quakes of its fake thunderstorms), Alinea’s customers are served an illusion. They are led to believe that a food’s trappings are valuable even when divorced from satisfying flavors, from nature, or from nostalgia. They are tricked into thinking that a restaurant which denies dining’s transcendent, human dimension has any value as a conjurer of culinary gibberish. They are, ultimately, suckers who are being sold a future where a restaurant’s quality grows with how “Instagrammable” the experience is.
For (and you have been guilty of this yourself), a meal at Alinea isoften spent peering behind the lens of one’s camera, capturing every iota ofthe staff’s prestidigitation for the sake of digital followers who—by the verynature of the medium—care little if the cuisine actually tasted good. In thesame manner, Rainforest Cafe’s customers keep their eyes glued to thesurroundings, stealing pictures with “Cha Cha” and friends or staging a celebratoryfamily tableau behind an erupting “Sparkling Volcano.” Yes, you’ll admit,Alinea’s “show” is clearly of a superior caliber—it had better be for more thanten times the price of Rainforest Cafe’s average check size. But can therestaurant’s “new train of thought” really be said to advance American dining?
Mind you, we are not talking about the use of multisensory modes tospur a deeper emotional connection to food. Alinea is not working to bringhumankind closer to nature, to bring it in touch with the transcendent value ofart, or to inspire a reckoning with the backwards nature of the American foodsystem. The restaurant does nothing to champion native foodways, celebratelittle-known traditions, or assert cuisine’s power to connect people acrosscultures.
Alinea is fine dining for fans of superhero movies. It’s globalistgourmet cooking, chum for the conspicuous consumption crowd. The restaurant’spresentations amount to much ado about nothing while its pervasive culture ofsmug superiority shields lackluster dishes from receiving their just desserts.The staff, desperately underpaid, should feel proud of how hard they work. Andyet, it all amounts to spinning in circles—to doing anything and everything butcomforting guests and serving them truly great food. It’s a system that hasonly survived in the shadows: perpetuated by customers’ worst instincts to bothavoid appearing “ignorant” and to retroactively justify the price paid.
If we are to judge Alinea more as a stage production than a restaurant,the situation grows even more dire. Though food holds the power of striking thesoul, the fundamental nature of performance—be it screen or stage—entails thebaring of the rawest, truest humanity. Yet, Alinea offers no humanity. In fact,it denies the humanity of its front of house staff in service of the mostshallow form of entertainment: literal smoke and mirrors. It’s thedramaturgical equivalent of junk food—and, you must say, junk food itself wouldstrike guests as more pleasing than most of the dishes served. To wit, dinershave followed up their meals at Alinea with hot dogs and hamburgers from localestablishments for as long as the restaurant has been open!
You do not doubt that Alinea was once a truly groundbreakingrestaurant. “Grant’s” reputation at Trio was surely not built only on smoke andmirrors, and “Nick,” you must imagine, tasted something there that he liked(back when he cared to eat his partner’s food). However, in its bid to stayrelevant, to continue milking as much money out of the brand as possible, therestaurant has undergone a dire descent into Flanderization. Whereas novel presentationsonce put the proverbial “cherry on top” of innovative, flavor-focusedpreparations, Alinea, today, only exists as a sad parody of itself. The kitchenhas resolved to play for the cameras rather than the palates before them. Theyhave gotten lightheaded from sniffing their own farts for so long that theyhave altogether forgotten how to please guests. Meanwhile, the reserve theirpatrons feel—which works to prevent frank criticism from ever reaching the chef’sears—is misinterpreted as a steadfast sense of wonder over their warped andworthless creations.
At the end of the day, when it comes to comparing theme restaurants,Rainforest Cafe clearly shines brighter than Alinea on account of its honesty.Customers know the nature of the “show” they are signing up for, and they canrely on a menu of comestibles that—while unexceptional—makes an honest effortto please. Alinea, with all the ostentation of a wannabee luxury brand, deniesevery element that makes a restaurant valuable. Without the guest knowing thescore, it sacrifices both cuisine and hospitality for the sake of anemotionally-barren performance. It masquerades as a “three Michelin star”restaurant but amounts to a sad carnival sideshow with a few snacks served on theside.
Sure, international diners like it: rather than embrace Midwestern foodthey don’t understand (or look down upon), they can indulge in a level ofculinary abstraction that nobody understands. For, at the end of the day, youthink Alinea is ashamed of Chicago, of Chicagoans’ sense of taste, and it seeksthe easy success that comes with denying any sense of place rather than engagein the far harder work of championing “flyover country.” How else can oneexplain the restaurant’s steadfast refusal to please native palates, or engageany of the charm for which Midwestern hospitality is known? Why does one getthe sense that “Grant” and “Nick” only care to increase their profile on thecoasts, to win the respect of well-heeled travelers who would otherwise dreaddining in such a backwards city filled to the brim with steakhouses? Oh, theyare fine selling overpriced meal kits to unsuspecting locals during thepandemic—pretending they have anything to teach us about comfort food.
Alinea is a business, a successful one. It has chosen success overquality. It has chosen success over value. And it has chosen success overhospitality. While Rainforest Cafe’s gift shop features Beanie Babies andapparel, Alinea’s slings cookbooks, Portholes, and Made-In cookware. But forthe some of the finer details, the gambit is the same. Theme restaurants canoffer a memorable environment, an enjoyable novelty, at the end of the day. Butjust be sure you know that’s all you’re signing up for—and be prepared to gohome hungry.