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–you think–altogether unfair. Alinea, Rainforest Cafe, and Barton G. (another fallen soldier in Chicago) have more in common than most restaurants. You think they provide just about the same value, relative to their respective prices, too. Each member of this triumvirate occupies the market category of the “theme restaurant,” which might include other renowned local establishments such as American Girl Cafe, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (yet another tragic closure), and Three Dots and a Dash. In fact, you would hesitate to list the latter given its substantive quality as a traditional tiki bar beyond the mere trappings of its theme. These other restaurants, however, tend to be all hat and no cattle.
The theme restaurant, as far as you understand it, exists to please infantile palates. You do not say “infantile” with any tinge of disrespect, as these establishments offer plenty of excitement to help hush fussy children and ensure a relatively tranquil dining experience for overworked parents. In that sense, the setting often takes on more salience than the cuisine, which aims to be pleasing but not profound. Everybody–across all ages and cultures–should easily find something to like. These are not places to be shocked or challenged but, 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 in clownish attire so as to match the drama occurring elsewhere in the dining room.
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 the ties that bind Chicago’s lone three Michelin star restaurant to its now-defunct rainforest dining experience. For most guests, visiting either Alinea or Rainforest Cafe is a special occasion. At the very least, neither establishment is 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 not bear repetition. This is not only, in part, due to the essence of theme restaurants that you touched on above, but also due to the particular gambit both of these restaurants employ (which you will further elucidate). Some customers may choose to return seasonally or annually, but this is often due to the prodding of children (for whom the novelty effect is particularly salient) or the designs of manchildren (who maintain a conspicuous consumptive, “see and be seen” attitude regarding their affairs).
Though Alinea maintains a rather subdued façade–fitting for its location in Lincoln Park–Rainforest Cafe’s outer design was about as eye-catching as any restaurant could be. Its towering, red-eyed frog and larger-than-life fungi sculptures were meant to catch the eye in a crowded section of River North that features a Hard Rock Cafe, Hooters, and McDonald’s (formerly bearing the famous “Rock N Roll” design, now more naturalistic). For Alinea, any idea of foot traffic is an absolute bane. As revealed by the Cat Cora “incident,” even a mistaken reservation is met with utter rudeness and disregard. Thus, it pays to maintain a mysterious and austere image from the street. In contrast, Rainforest Cafe, surely, welcomed foot traffic. It took reservations (and, you think, some number of customers truly planned their visits in advance), but it also boasted the space–unlike Alinea–to accommodate a large proportion of walk-ins. This explains any discrepancy in the outer branding of the two restaurants, for the real similarities come into focus once one 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 rather long 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 few paces ahead. While entering Alinea’s dining room post-renovation is actually rather boring (not to mention claustrophobic), this summer’s AIR: Alinea in Residence resurrected some of the optical trickery. Diners were funneled down a makeshift “hallway” filled with streaming lights that created the sensation of traveling through a wormhole. After being spit out at the other end, guests were treated to a “controversial” COVID-inspired canapé before being ushered into the elevator that brought them to the rooftop dining space. Both illusions certainly come off for first-time guests, and–further–they serve to underline Alinea’s ethos. Which is to say, they communicate that “things are not as they seem” within the walls of the restaurant. The phrase “expect the unexpected” also comes to mind. Alinea, in the establishment’s own words, means “a new train of thought.” To that effect, this opening trickery–particularly the hallway that defined the restaurant for decade–asserts a certain playfulness that cuts through the drama typically associated with fine dining.
In much the same manner, entering Rainforest Cafe is not quite like any other restaurant either. Though the outer décor hints at the nature of the overall design, passing through the portal entails stepping into a fantasy world where frights and thrills lurk behind every corner. Foliage covers the ceiling, evoking the sense that one is covered by the forest’s canopy. Hulking tree trunks–which double, you think, as support beams–help complete the illusion. In the center of the dining room, the “canopy” breaks to reveal a glowing blue sky strewn with artificial stars and planets that draw the eye upwards. Aquariums of different shapes and sizes accent the space, with the largest among them acting as gateways that guests pass under to move about the space. Outcrops of fake “rock” line the walls and sections of the floor, blending in with the canopy by way of additional, dangling greenery. These outcrops also act as stages for a wide variety of animatronic creatures. Elephants, gorillas, butterflies, and the like–all life-size (or even larger than life)–entertain guests with their movements and add further to the sense of immersion. A riff on the famous Atlas statue–set in a babbling water fountain–stands as 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’s soul. While the scale of the plants, animals, and night sky fills guests with wonder, the statue–the lone representation of humanity in the well-curated space–underlines that the rainforest is “another world” untouched by mankind, which carries the responsibility of preserving it. By reinforcing a sense of otherness (relative to the naturalistic scene), the restaurant primes diners to be pulled into the experience.
The unique ambiance constructed through Alinea’s trickery and Rainforest Cafe’s cast of flora and fauna is, in truth, par for the course when it comes to theme restaurants. Cosmetic distinction is the most salient way of branding a space, and it makes crafting marketing material all the easier too. Alinea is elegant and mysterious, drawing on greyscale tones and subdued lighting. Rainforest Cafe is more “in your face” yet not altogether charmless: the cacophony of sounds and density of design elements make for a family-friendly baseline of perceived “activity.” Rather than simply forming audible and visual “white noise,” this high 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 of activity–for their respective settings–seduce consumers with the feeling that wonder awaits them at any moment. This emotional spark, this foundation of altered expectations (relative to the “average” restaurant experience) lays the groundwork for the guest experience to come.
Once diners have navigated the entrance, noted the ambiance, and made their way to the table, the interpersonal facet of the hospitality experience comes into focus. At the top of the pyramid, Rainforest Cafe boasts a pantheon of anthropomorphic animals that embody the brand. Like sports mascots or Disney characters (within the parks), these figures are played by employees wearing costumes who walk from table to table offering waves and photo opportunities. They include “Cha Cha” the red-eyed tree frog, “Ozzie” the orangutan, “Rio” the macaw, and “Nile” the crocodile to name just a few. Alinea, in much the same manner, maintains its own set of mascots: there’s “Grant” the mustachioed molecular gastronomy magician and “Nick” the money man. (The cast of characters at Alinea, admittedly, feels a bit thin, as no one in recent memory has cemented a longstanding presence in the realms of wine service or hospitality).
These larger-than-life figures have little to do with the day-to-day operation of the respective two restaurants. Rather, they are caricaturized public relations creations used to cultivate consumer excitement surrounding the brands. Yes, once upon a time, “Grant” was the renowned chef of Trio, the mastermind of four-hour molecular gastronomy meals in Alinea’s heyday. But now he only serves to hawk cookbooks and cookware, to film instructional videos for the brand’s overpriced at-home offerings, to (finally) appear across food media, and to make an occasional appearance in the dining room for that coveted photo-op: playing the part of the “mad scientist” as he shovels so much fairy dust 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 end result is the same: the mascots commanded customers’ attention as idealized expressions of the restaurant brand. This amounts, in most cases, to a fantasy that 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 the master.
Much of the work these characters perform occurs long before customers ever step through the restaurants’ doors. To wit, “Cha Cha” and “Ozzie” beckon diners to pay Rainforest Cafe a visit from their oversized perch on the establishment’s signage. They are proudly featured on the company’s social media pages, its website, and in promotional material both printed and broadcast. The connection, in this manner, is drawn between the restaurant (a place 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–the head chef having overcome death at the final hour and lived to transform food as we know it from the inside out. Though the restaurant launched in the shadow of his tongue cancer (and all the drama such a struggle entails), the fifteen years since its opening have seen “Grant” construct an impenetrable image. With a second lease on life, he has adopted the aura of the quiet monk, the silent magician toiling away at unseen creations meant to shock and awe the diner.
“Grant” talks to the press, provides them quotes, and even–over the past few years–maintains an active Instagram presence that includes, from time to time, engaging directly with fans’ comments. Appearances on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and The Final Table have cemented his position at the vanguard of American cookery for a whole new generation. (For, although he had previously acted as a guest judge on shows like Top Chef, you think “Grant” ran the risk of needing to reinvent himself for a new generation of “foodies” too young to have paid attention to Alinea’s first decade and the personal story the restaurant’s opening entailed). Most recently, both “Grant” and “Nick” have graced television screens throughout the country on behalf of Made In. Their presence in the advertisements as Alinea mascots asserts that the cookware is “worthy of 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 freewheeling and colorful variety, Alinea’s two standard-bearers speak to a more somber aesthetic. “Cha Cha,” “Ozzie,” and friends aid in the construction of a sense of fantasy. For, within the restaurant, what could be more outlandish than these anthropomorphic figures waddling to and fro with silly grins stretched across their faces? The youngest guests, of course, are most prone to mistaking these mascots for the “real thing.” However, you think everyone in a given party can appreciate how the costumed staff members add an extra layer of immersion to the already-detailed forest ambiance. While the rest of the employees at a given Rainforest Cafe location are, surely, dressed for the part, the presence of the mascots allows them to embrace the role of the “tour guide.” Their short-sleeved shirts, khakis, and boots remind one of safari attire. This uniform, relative to the costumed animals, marks the servers with a sense of otherness relative to the wider environment. Nonetheless, the matching and thematic nature of the clothing makes clear that the employees occupy a liminal status between the mysterious rainforest and the paying customers. In this manner, mascots like “Cha Cha” make room for the rest of the staff to adopt a more professional manner of dress and interaction without spoiling any larger sense of the theme restaurant experience.
In contrast, mascots like “Grant” and “Nick,” in many ways, make the work of Alinea’s hospitality team that much harder. The former, in almost every sense, embodies “Alinea” itself. It is “Grant’s” personal story, his palate, and his range of transcendent culinary creations that first put the restaurant on the map. It is he who seduces viewers watching shows like Chef’s Table, viewers who come to romanticize his many flourishes on the plate as the product of tortured 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 hands of the master. When that evening eventually comes around, most wonder, “where’s ‘Grant’”? His eclectic creations are on display, yes, but do they resonate as deeply 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 interesting flavors and textures, yes, but nothing that amounts to the “best” thing a customer 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 were served and why. They wonder if the meal might have felt just a bit more worthwhile with an appearance from the mustachioed mascot who, no doubt, sold them on the experience to begin with.
And “Nick”? Well, “Nick” is the mascot with dollar signs for eyes. He’s the monster lurking under the bed when a would-be customer dares ask why they must pre-pay for their reservation. He’s the specter who haunts patrons–famous or not–who show up on the wrong date and demand special treatment. He’s the unconquerable keyboard warrior who silences all dissent. Ultimately, he’s the dragon guarding Alinea’s hoard of treasure: engorged to the point that he’s forgotten he’s in the business of hospitality altogether. On occasion, one may see “Nick” rear his head at this or that restaurant or special event. Needless to say, there are no photo-ops on offer, and don’t be surprised to see him “work the room” with everyone yet snub you. How is service supposed to thrive in a group that toils under the shadow of two menacing mascots such as these? It doesn’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 to detract from the guest experience. “Grant,” for all his genius, is not the sort to assert the aesthetic or culinary value of his menus. He prefers, you think, to let the dishes speak for themselves while undercutting any expectations regarding his own personality with a grin and a wink. The chef’s mastery of technique, his imagination, and his high level of focus are all on display throughout the assorted media content published regarding the restaurant. “Grant,” in a sense, is idealized long before guests arrive at the restaurant. They have seen pictures and videos of food that surpasses, visually, any comestible encountered before. This “shock and awe” style of visual branding incontrovertibly places an emphasis on the cuisine, and the sense of wonder the cuisine evokes is then ascribed to “Grant.” Should guests come face to face with him in the kitchen or dining room, the chef’s understated bearing shifts attention back towards the food. Any lack of warmth, charm, or conscious engagement with the guests is viewed simply as a consequence of his “genius” and the burden it “no doubt” forms regarding the social side of hospitality. Thus, as a mascot, “Grant” forms a feedback loop with his food. Customers are attracted to the colorful cuisine, they come to idealize the “magician” who creates it, but any encounter with the man 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 place an emphasis on Alinea’s food. In some cases, like the “Cat Cora incident,” he can be said to have defended an equitable vision of hospitality. Despite handling the reservation snafu in an ugly manner, “Nick” looked to assert that Alinea was a restaurant that nobody, no matter how famous they are, could elbow their way into. Such a declaration, however subversive his efforts to spin what was ultimate a hospitality failure on his end, underscores the value of booking and paying for a reservation so far in advance. Guests fighting for a coveted ticket on Tock are playing the same game as everyone else, no matter their status, “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 the food 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 probe its value no matter how fiercely he defends the restaurant on social media. Whether this trust has been well-earned or is merely drawn from a misplaced sense of pride can only be known when customers ultimately pay Alinea a visit. As it stands, “Nick,” like “Grant,” does little to forge a hospitable feeling regarding their establishment. The former, through brashness, and the latter, through mystique, leave it up to the tasting menu alone to prove the experience’s value. Rather than a sense of humility, passion, or “white glove” luxury, the duo–as mascots–symbolize a smug sense of self-assuredness that can only be tested by paying the ticket price.
Is it any surprise, then, that Alinea’s hospitality team, taking its cues from their two mascots and leaders, fall so utterly flat in shaping a meaningful guest experience? While Rainforest Cafe’s colorful characters work to charm customers, “Grant” and “Nick” seem to push their patrons away. “Hospitality,” in the sense of making customers feel warm and fuzzy within the restaurant space, is not their domain. Rather, the duo treats Alinea as if it were a finished product, an institution, whose ironclad quality no longer demands they play their part putting on the “show.” (Alinea, you would concede, is an institution in terms of longevity; however, its inability to retain key staff and conscious abandonment of classic dishes means that the positive characteristics one ascribes to the word “institution” are largely absent). “Grant” and “Nick’s” carefree attitude concerning the guest experience, from the outside, smacks of confidence: Alinea really is that good. In practice, the gambit 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 what to expect when entering Alinea. They’ve likely seen some representation of the otherworldly cuisine through media, and they often carry some familiarity regarding “Grant” the head chef. They prepaid for their tasting menu–perhaps the first time such a thing was demanded of them–and perhaps they tacked on a wine pairing or cookbook to boot. Arriving in Lincoln Park, they step into the greyscale edifice dreaming of what a $300, $500, or $1,000 per person dinner (price dependent on seating and supplements) could possibly feel like. The suited figures at the host stand are sleek, sharp, and snappy. They lead you from the greyscale hallway into the greyscale dining room. You take your seat and wait for the show to begin. Perhaps you have not chosen a beverage pairing, and so the sommelier stops by: professional, confident, exacting. No detail out of place, no lines flubbed, the staff welcomes you with a short speech. “Keep your arms 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 actually that. Everything runs like clockwork so that “Grant’s” coveted creations may achieve their full titillation. Which is to say, everything in the dining room feels stilted and rehearsed, an extension of the inhospitable ethos embodied by the brand’s mascots.
No, the team at Alinea is not openly snobby (though, if you dig back in your memory to your inaugural visit nearly a decade ago, they surely were). Rather, their manner of socialization is studied and soulless. Charming the guest is just another item on the “to-do list,” situated somewhere between tending 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 part in the movement of the meal than any other restaurant you can name. It is natural, sensible that they cannot quite linger at every table to make friends. Like “Grant” and “Nick” themselves, niceties must be sacrificed in service of some larger vision of what “Alinea” is. Sure, the staff smiles, they crack jokes, and they often find the right openings to garnish guests’ conversations with a dash of irreverence. Yet it’s a “paint by number” manner of pleasing guests that precludes the ease and presence forming a meaningful connection with customers requires. It’s good enough, surely, in service of the larger experience 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 the excuse that the ultimate “performance” will strike guests as worth it.
It is worth noting the distinction here. At Rainforest Cafe, the outer signage, atmosphere, and mascots meld together to shape a meaningful theme restaurant experience. The wait staff, though dressed for the part, need only be friendly and accomplish their work competently to ensure guests enjoy the restaurant’s ambient elements. At Alinea, by comparison, the muted décor and misanthropic mascots shift attention towards the cuisine. The wait staff, taking their cue from the top, perform their work with a high level of precision yet little time for frivolities. (Those “frivolities,” of course, like making a guest feel “at home” strike closer to the core of hospitality than the most fanciful food could ever dream of doing). Thus, it can be said that Alinea’s service–like its ambiance, like its mascots–is channeled towards staging the “money shot” which the food itself entails. In this manner, the restaurant really does come close to a stage performance: the staff being akin to the backstage crew that puts all the pieces in place so that the tasting menu may sing its “solo.”
Of course, such an approach implicitly denies the importance of the “human element” in hospitality. The rigors of keeping the “show” on track ensure that the “fourth wall” between server and served will never be broken. Such a transcendent moment requires vulnerability from both parties, and Alinea’s front-of-house team barely finds any moment to pause during their performance, let alone let the mask slip altogether. Likewise, the greyscale tones of the dining room, its intimacy, and the use (or lack) of lighting throughout the meal emphasize, for the 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 a style of hospitality that is thoroughly corporate. The former is familiar: smile, take orders, deliver dishes, provide refills, and let the fantasy of dining in the rainforest take root. The latter is more involved: smile, tinker with the items on the table, put finishing touches on the dishes in an infinite number of ways, provide refills, and let the drama of the tasting menu unfold with as few kinks as possible. Neither establishment imparts any sense that the guest is being hosted by “someone,” that they are tasting the humble creations of a craftsman who cooks with heart and soul and imbues those elements into the service. Neither establishment gives off the impression that the staff is a family united by a common culture yet defined by distinct individuals who, in myriad ways, may genuinely touch each guest. Instead, for each of these brands, the restaurant forms a monolithic entity where individualism and distinction take a backseat to the larger performance of the theme. At Rainforest Cafe, servers let the ambiance speak for itself. At Alinea, they let the cuisine do the same. Whether this erasure of the “self” vis-à-vis the service experience is worthwhile ultimately comes down to how well those accented elements carry the day.
Much in the same manner that the artificial jungle décor, animated night sky, and cast of mascots enable Rainforest Cafe’s wait staff to succeed without putting on any theatrics of their own, the restaurant’s menu features standard American fare that–like the servers–is simply dressed up to fit the theme. Non-alcoholic frozen drinks like the “Swimming Hole,” “Rainforest Ricky,” and “Brazilian Freeze” are served in collectible cups featuring the disembodied heads of “Cha Cha” and friends at the top and a small plastic toy sealed in a compartment at the bottom. Another variant of glassware on offer features LED lights at the bottom to better illuminate the brightly-colored concoctions under the darkness of the restaurant’s artificial sky. These beverages, in essence, amount to “tropical” juice and sugar syrup sodas for kids. However, the serving vessels–which customers may choose between and take home–add an element of personalization to the experience as well as further extending the brand and its mascots. Even the alcoholic beverages advertised to adults are listed under a banner proudly declaring, “Buy the drink, keep the glass!” You can only imagine that these logo-emblazoned goblets collect dust at the back of one’s cupboard when all is said and done, yet the novelty, again, allows the restaurant to sell quotidian cocktails at a formidable price while saddling the guest with a take-home advertisement for the brand.
When it comes to Rainforest Cafe’s food, much of the same philosophy reigns. Some items, like the “Rainforest Rascals” (char-grilled mini burgers), “Gorilla Grilled Cheese Delight” (American cheese on Texas toast), and “Python Pasta” (standard garganelli noodles, as far as you can tell) are vanilla variants of their respective dishes dressed up in evocative, theme restaurant jargon. Another item, the “Jurassic Chicken Tidbits” offers children the novelty of eating dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets–but you would wager they are indistinguishable from the supermarket frozen food variety (and they do not even fit the theme!) The adults’ menu features a laundry list of familiar fare like chicken quesadillas, cheese sticks (add buffalo style $2.99), spinach & artichoke dip, chicken strips, grilled shrimp, fried shrimp, fish-n-chips (“served English-style”), shrimp tacos, St. Louis style pork spareribs, chicken fried chicken, and key lime pie. This menu, like the kids’, also features an assortment of colorfully-titled delectations such as the “Aloha Salmon & Shrimp,” “Anaconda Pasta,” “Amazon Corn Chowder,” “China Island Chicken Salad,” “Rainforest Burger,” “Blue Mountain Chicken Sandwich” and “Jungle Turkey Wrap,” None of the ingredients in these dishes distinguish them from the most pedestrian examples of the recipes. Many of them come with “Safari Fries” (that is, plain old French fries) which can be substituted for “Caribbean” rice or tortilla chips. A “Korean Spicy Stir-Fry,” “Pastalaya (Spicy)” and “Beyond [plant-based] Burger” round out the selections, the three not quite fitting into the “standard” or “colorful” naming convention categories.
Ultimately, Rainforest Cafe’s menu betrays a tension between the restaurant’s devotion to its theme and its efforts to ensure every guest leaves pleased. For example, one wonders why the chicken sandwich is given the moniker “Blue Mountain” while the chicken quesadillas, chicken strips, and chicken fried chicken are labelled so plainly. “Blue Mountain,” it seems, denotes a lemon grilled chicken paired with bacon, Swiss, roasted red peppers, lettuce, and “zesty Safari sauce” while the latter three chicken dishes are ostensibly prepared without any frills. So, perhaps, the colorful dish titles do highlight a thematic twist on the recipes. But what makes a corn chowder with bell peppers, potatoes, bacon, pico de gallo, and tortilla strips an “Amazon Corn Chowder”? What connection can be drawn between a turkey wrap filled with tomatoes, bacon, lettuce, and Caesar dressing on a flour tortilla and a so-called “Jungle Turkey Wrap”? How does the rainforest theme think to marry such a diverse range of influences from Korean to English to Caribbean, Creole, Chinese, and Hawaiian? You think the variety of influences it amounts to a caricaturized expression of exoticism, a covering of all bases for diners wishing to venture outside their comfort zone. These “adventurous” dishes, of course, are undergirded by a mass of ordinary American fare, ensuring those for whom new flavors are anathema can nosh on the most recognizable foods imaginable.
It can then be said that any notion of Rainforest Cafe as a theme restaurant stops short of the food. Yes, the menu’s cosmetic design and its lingo are on-brand, but the substance of the offerings reveals a hedging of bets. As with the wait staff, the dishes are designed to please while the larger show of atmosphere and mascots enthralls guests and provides the desired novelty value. Yes, the beverages–with their collectible receptacles–do a better job of offering some novelty value. But this is principally as an extension of featuring the brand mascots or–via LED lighting–playing off of the overarching atmospheric effects in the dining room. It comes as no surprise that Rainforest Cafe seeks to please parents and their picky kids. Thus, the menu is meant to offer the security familiarity provides alongside some safe expressions of novelty and one demarcated “(Spicy)” dish for the most adventurous diners in the lot. The food works to accentuate the restaurant’s ambiance by being sure not to step on anybody’s toes. For, at the end of the day, no guest will feel that the fare–in terms of variety or quality–falls far below that encountered at restaurants like Chili’s or Applebee’s. In this manner, the value of visiting a theme restaurant is preserved against any abrasions culinary risk-taking might entail.
The one undeniable exception to this dogma–the one flourish where Rainforest Cafe’s food embraces some of the drama seen throughout its environment–comes with dessert. Yes, there’s a bang average key lime pie on offer. There’s also a “Tribal Cheesecake,” which, like so many of the provocatively-named entrées, is altogether indistinguishable from the most standard recipe: “New York style cheesecake with creamy whipped topping and garnished with raspberry and chocolate sauces.” However, the pièce de résistance–given top billing on the dessert menu–has to be the “Sparkling Volcano.” Described as “a giant, rich chocolate brownie cake stacked up high, served warm with vanilla ice 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 the dusky rainforest environment and artificial night sky. Of course, the dish’s constituent elements amount to a fairly typical brownie sundae. However, the “Sparkling Volcano’s” very structure connects the restaurant’s comestibles to its overall theme in a manner otherwise limited to superficial labeling.
In truth, both beverages and dessert present terra firma for Rainforest Cafe to indulge in a bit of theatrics. Nearly all customers can be expected to order a drink–alcoholic or not–served in one of the restaurant’s collectible cups. And there is little chance an imbiber will be anything but pleased with their pleasantly sweet concoction. In the same manner, the “Sparkling Volcano” beckons customers to indulge in the most classic of combinations: warm chocolate brownie with cold vanilla ice cream. Even relative to the key lime pie and the cheesecake–crowd-pleasers in their own right–the victual volcano scratches an itch that nearly every customer will find appealing. The beverages and “Sparkling Volcano,” in essence, form the biggest “buckets” likely to catch the interest of the greatest number of guests. Thus, they merit a bit of extra panache–that is to say, they are worthy of investment and standardization at the corporate level because they are viewed as surefire hits. The rest of the menu, being characterized by its breadth, offers less chance at specialization. Rather than tinker with recipes or presentations of savory food that might turn off customers who are merely there for the “show,” the brand channels its creative energy towards the ambiance and just a couple menu items that most are sure to order, most are sure to be pleased by, and that easily meld with one’s enjoyment of the overall space.
Alinea, as you have highlighted, eschews the kind of trappings that characterize the Rainforest Cafe experience. The décor is understated, the mascots are unplugged from shaping the guest experience, and the service sacrifices charm for precision. All the attention, ultimately, is shifted onto the tasting menu itself, and guests are primed to be absolutely blown away by what occurs before them during the course of the meal. While Rainforest Cafe’s plain food–with the exception of the “Sparkling Volcano”–stands in the shadow of its environment, Alinea’s cuisine casts a shadow so deep and dark as to justify the dereliction of better leadership and hospitality. Of course, it is hard to find fault with Alinea’s overall hospitality other than to say what it lacks: warmth, ease, presence, personalization, and a sense of singularity rather than duplication. These subjective, emotional elements are sacrificed in service of building a sense of drama that the cuisine, ultimately, must “cash in” on. If successful, 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 been duped–if all the sense of mystery, all the branding of the “genius” chef bending the rules of gastronomy, amounts to a pretentious parlor game.
One knows and feels Rainforest Cafe’s value as a theme restaurant before ever spending a penny there. Alinea’s impenetrable essence (and the value thereof), in contrast, can only be judged in the afterglow of the meal. The restaurant resists easy criticism, that is for sure, but you think that some of its secrets may be unraveled through the lens presently being applied. To avoid retreading the ground that your previous treatment of Alinea covered, you will keep your engagement with Alinea’s cuisine grounded in the theme restaurant comparison this article entails.
Stepping into the restaurant’s ground floor dining room–known as “The Gallery”–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-elaborate centerpiece and all its accompanying regalia. One evening, the theme may be Salvador Dalí’s Les dîners de Gala: the table being bedecked with accents of gold and red velvet, antique picture frames, candelabras, and all manner of aged Continental bric-a-brac. Another night, guests may hear their feet crunch against a layer of fallen leaves strewn about the floor as the table evokes an autumn harvest theme. Still, on other occasions, the scene altogether resembles a fantasy world: an ethereal mountain of cloth stretches the length of the table like a puff of cloud, yet the vivid pink lights illuminating it from underneath give off an extraterrestrial sensation. Music–be it classical for Dalí or more mystic and opaque–helps further set the mood. To match the centerpiece, each guest has set before them an assortment of china: fancy plates, saucers, cloches, and lidded bowls containing unseen surprises. Bites of food may even be dangling down from the ceiling, unnoticed until 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 assembled parties 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. This may include, as just mentioned, drawing guests’ eyes upward to perceive that morsel suspended in midair. Or, he or she may simply note the time-sensitive nature of a certain hot or cold bite. As this speech unfolds, the rest of the staff snaps into action. Sequentially, in a synchronized fashion, they travel down 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 at preordained spots. The sensation, you might say, is of the restaurant, the dining room, 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 the feast begins.
The amuse-bouches served often have something to do with the opening theme. The Dalí “dinner party,” for example, is defined by Alinea’s rendition of the “oasis leek pie” found (and pictured) in the artist’s cookbook. Though their replication of the recipe is positively diminutive, the design is a dead ringer for the original, and it serves to connect the trappings of the theme to what is occurring on guests’ actual plates. Other bites, like a dried beet cracker or an oyster on the half shell paired with escargot are harder to place. Still, they embrace a sense of whimsy: the oyster is served on ice within an even larger oyster shell while another amuse-bouche made of red fruit leather 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 are almost never transcendent. They tantalize without sending your pleasure sensors up to “ten.” They make you think “hm,” rather than “wow!” And, perhaps, this is the sort of introduction the restaurant wishes to provide. The idea that guests should “expect the unexpected” (be it from above, below, inside, or outside the table and its wares) is reinforced. Further, the greyscale façade fades to display more color, more personality, more quirkiness that customers might have felt was under the surface but could not quite glean before dining at Alinea.
The opening salvo having been launched, the front of house staff beckons 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. This trip to the “engine room” of the experience, so to speak, underlines the hard work that goes on behind the scenes despite how coolly customers are received out front. Seeing the staff engaged in ceaseless activity–tweezers in tow–evokes some sense of “Grant’s” idealized image. The sense of precision and focus–of the “genius” or “geniuses” executing cuisine as if the kitchen were CERN–is palpable. “Grant” himself, the mascot in the flesh, might even be there in some rare instances. On such occasions, he does not engage the guests but, rather, goes about his usual activity. He will, of course, “grant” pictures to those who are brave enough to bother him (and, in truth, he does so with no trace of disturbance).
Nonetheless, the sense one gets from the kitchen during this early interlude seems to confirm what visitors already thought about the restaurant and its head chef “mascot.” He and the rest of the culinary team keep their heads down, being unerringly focused on the execution of their menu. Any sense of self-expression or personality is put into the food, which promises to blow patrons away as a means of overcoming the lack of warmth that pervades the establishment. Thus, while the field trip to Alinea’s kitchen could serve to forge some connection with the cooks crafting the guests’ cuisine, the restaurant–instead–uses the occasion to confirm customers’ expectations. The restaurant is not a place for warmth, for “old world” hospitality, but stands as something closer to a laboratory. Its staff–from dishwasher to chef–are single-minded in their mission to deliver the tasting menu in a strict, timely manner. To that effect, they dispense with the niceties one expects from the more intimate kitchen visits bestowed upon patrons at other three Michelin star establishments. “Trust us,” they seem to say, “the dishes you receive will do the 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 entrance into the restaurant to their trek into the kitchen, Alinea asks to be judged solely on the weight of the food served. The staff, while highly competent, can likewise only be judged on how well they deliver that food. Any lack of emotion–of genuine, vulnerable, transcendent hospitality–can be understood as something consciously 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 the living, breathing men and women that make up Alinea’s staff? Is all the mystery, all the abstraction, the ticket price, the greyscale, and the arrogance of “Nick” grounded in a tasting menu that is truly revelatory?
Such questions will have to wait as, upon their return from the kitchen, customers ascertain that some sleight of hand has taken place. The centerpiece–that long, themed dining room table they had just sat along–is no more, having been replaced with a more familiar assortment of two- and four-tops throughout the room. Usually, the trick elicits a sigh of relief, as some patrons were led to believe they’d spend the entirety of their meal in communal seating. Other guests simply smile at the gag–the sudden transformation of the space spelling, once again, that “things are not what they seem” inside Alinea’s hallowed halls. The reversion from the Salvador Dalí or floating cloud aesthetic to the restaurant’s familiar greyscale tones signals that the thematic séance has come to its conclusion. Whatever comes next, then, can be thought 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 of asserting its value. The food–in both form and flavor–need prove that the underwhelming ambiance, misanthropic mascots, and stilted hospitality–rather than being flaws–ultimately work in a complementary fashion. To wit, the restaurant’s thought process is that the food–expressive and dramatic–may shine more brightly in the shadow of subterfuge and smug self-assurance.
Roe, sturgeon or otherwise, presents a safe means of regaling guests right at the start. On one occasion, you are served a composition of coconut sponge cake, lychee, white pepper, and arctic char roe: white on white on white on white all served atop a speckled, white-patterned plate. On another occasion, the kitchen cuts right to the chase, serving a gold leaf crêpe filled with hazelnut cream and folded shut, so to speak, with a weighty dollop of caviar. This latter preparation is served on a plate featuring a white lattice pattern, which–rather than matching the components–allows the hues of gold and green to glisten. Needless to say, these are pretty, rather delicate creations befitting the steadfast sense of focus customers bore witness to in the kitchen. The dishes make for lovely photos (as totemic luxury ingredients always 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 server places a bowl filled with fruit at the center of the table, the lights are dimmed, 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 perhaps something closer to fog–envelop the table, teasing their way around water glasses and wine stems then stretching out onto the floor. As guests’ eyes are drawn to the drama before them, a team of servers place a range of receptacles around the table. This set piece is titled “Flavors and Aromas of Thailand,” or something to that effect, and it featured on Alinea’s tasting menu for more than a year. Other than the centerpiece, it comprises several bites of food. One features scallop, mustard, and chili (inspired by kaeng, a sour curry), another is composed of chicken skin, burnt peanut, and makrut lime, and the last–served as a gel which guests suck through a glowing glass tube–cleanses the palate with 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 in the manner a sumptuous meal most often entails. Four courses into the menu, and customers still get the feeling they are still being teased. The “show,” certainly, is shocking–vis-à-vis a “typical” restaurant experience–but why all the hullaballoo for a meager few morsels of food? (Morsels, in truth, that wink towards a nostalgia for Thailand that few diners on any given evening possess). One would rather, you think, feast on the fruit inside the centerpiece than contort oneself to appreciate its accompanying bites. They’re pleasant, yes, but not pleasing, nor comforting, nor soothing in any sense. One wonders, at best, “that’s it?” At worst, with feelings of hunger still gnawing nearly an hour into proceedings, one begins to wonder if they’ve been gypped, if that promised payoff of virtuoso victuals will simply go up in smoke like the fruit bowl itself.
The next course–another mainstay at Alinea which you have seen in a couple iterations–represents a particular nadir for the restaurant. Langoustine–or, on some occasions, scallop–is dehydrated and transformed into a thin sheet of paper. That paper is perched within a bowl of bouillabaisse broth whereupon the guest, using their utensils, reconstitute the crustacean into a kind of flavored pulp. Accompanying the soup is a thin roll of nori filled with rouille, a Provençal sauce (likened to mayonnaise) characterized by saffron and typically added to a bouillabaisse. While it is intriguing to see a traditional dish deconstructed to such a degree, the individual parts of this presentation fall desperately short of the “whole,” complete pleasure one expects from fish stew. Why take langoustine or scallop, which offer two of the finest mouthfeels of all ingredients, and deny their texture altogether? The paper is an interesting novelty, yes, but the fun of crunching it into the bowl (if one can even term it “fun”) is altogether divorced from any achievement of flavor. You could excuse this denial of the shellfishes’ native form is the bouillabaisse broth, say, struck you as being the most intense, most succulent example you have ever tasted. Yet its depth of flavor is bang average, and one wonders why so many beautiful elements were tortured in pursuit of the “edible paper” novelty one grew tired of as a child.
By the time the next presentation arrives, customers have no doubt reached their wit’s end. And, when the lights go down once more, they might suspect yet another example of style over substance is afoot. Instead, they receive a jet black tendril of octopus that is nearly impossible to discern in the darkness. It is coated in a gochujang barbecue sauce and served with scallion 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 needlessly adulterated. Rather, it is wonderfully rich, faintly (and pleasingly) chewy, and altogether decadent. Comprising no more than two or three bites, the dish is gone in an instant: inhaled by patrons who had been feasting on air up until that point. But it’s a step in the right direction, a dish that can stand against some of the greatest octopus preparations seen elsewhere. One might ask, “why doesn’t Alinea fashion each of its dishes in this manner?” No answer is readily apparent, as the menu reverts towards frippery.
There’s a presentation of corn chips (filled with a corn mousse made to look like kernels) alongside a bowl featuring “variations of corn” (a blend of several melt-in-your-mouth pellets formed from liquid nitrogen) with Benton’s bacon. A “Thanksgiving stuffing” flavored cheesecake bite, also, arrives hidden within a centerpiece comprised of thick autumn foliage. Yet another dish showcases 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 tree trunk. 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 is carefully removed, cleaned, and butchered before being plated with a siphoned littleneck clam chowder, Old Bay, and house Tabasco. While such dishes are designed to tickle guests’ nostalgia, any sense of connection to collective American culture is merely window dressing that empowers the kitchen to show off a range of techniques while remaining rooted and legible.
More abstract, simply-plated preparations–like an asparagus salad topped 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, even the layering of several textures of the same ingredient, that–nonetheless–fail to 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 betrays an 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 deconstruct associations of color and texture that may ultimately serve to pigeonhole particular ingredients. Yet, in terms of flavor–that most visceral sensation that stands at the heart of dining as a unique art form–the restaurant rarely convinces customers that its breaks from canonical cooking are worth the fuss. Why take something 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 leaning into a sense of nostalgia that–while nominally present–is altogether errant throughout the meal. The dish, which in its first form was inspired by Tournedos Rossini (a classic dish attributed to Carême), has–more recently–taken inspiration from Steak Diane (considered a more broadly “Continental” dish developed roughly a century later). No matter the trappings, this portion of the meal represents the restaurant’s rendition of “meat and potatoes.” The set piece begins with a bit of music–either a piece by Rossini himself or a ditty from Steak Diane’s era. Then, Alinea’s executive chef–not “Grant,” mind you–parades around the dining room with a proud piece of A5 wagyu beef. Not long after, it hits the hot pan at a mobile cooking station perched near the hallway closest to the kitchen, perfuming the room with the intoxicating aroma of melting fat. The steak rests while its respective (Rossini or Diane) sauce is prepared. Then it is portioned, plated with an accompanying mushroom, truffle, and/or foie gras morsel, sauced, then served.
Whereas many of the restaurant’s presentations draw on nostalgia (or simply special effects) in service of rather unconventional bites of food, Alinea’s steak course applies their tricks of the trade towards delivering one of fine dining’s most traditional forms. There can be no doubt that the piece of wagyu served is good. It disintegrates delightfully on the tongue, and the purity of its beef flavor–accented only by salt–forms a most fitting, most classic bedfellow with either the Rossini (a Madeira demi-glace) or Diane (brandy or sherry flambé) sauce. But, after needlessly complicating so many other recipes throughout the course of the tasting menu, can Alinea really redeem itself so easily?
For such a polarizing, forward-thinking restaurant, using A5 wagyu means drawing on the laziest of luxury tropes. It’s a totemic ingredient par excellence, and it so often trades the deeper satisfaction of beefier, meatier flavor for a fetishization of that precious marbling. Moreover, being served a tiny slab of “A5 wagyu,” as is done at Oriole, at Yūgen, and at Ever (to name only a few), smacks of laziness. This is not “snow beef” or “olive beef” or one of myriad more interesting designations of Japanese beef that demonstrate greater intention in sourcing. 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 olive branch, offered to diners left disappointed by all that preceded it. And, you should be clear, it’s a fine preparation with an enjoyable presentation. But it is in no way transcendent and must, instead, be read cynically as a means of currying favor with guests for whom all else–up until that point–has fallen flat.
Rounding the bend into dessert, Alinea’s sweeter offerings engage many of the same tropes as the savory side of the menu. In the nostalgic realm, there’s a sassafras- (a key ingredient in root beer) flavored s’more, a piece of sweet potato tempura glazed with Buffalo Trace bourbon (skewered on a cinnamon stick), and a play on a strawberry Dove Bar served alongside a dish of strawberry and burrata. One course, which itself is titled “Nostalgia,” features liquid-filled orbs reminiscent of caramel corn that are served atop a carton of actual caramel corn. In the same manner, a bite of puffed, crisped Japanese gold melon is presented perched atop a whole piece of the fruit–rind intact. Here, relative to the savory food, the restaurant seems a bit less fussy, a bit more playful. When fitting an unfamiliar ingredient (like the sassafras or strawberry/burrata combination) into a familiar form, they ensure that form is legible and comfortable. Likewise, when transforming a familiar ingredient (like the caramel corn or melon) into an unfamiliar form, they opt for a presentation that connects the bite to its usual depiction. No doubt, all the dishes listed amount to meager few bites; however, they succeed in showcasing the kitchen’s creativity without descending into the “shock and awe” seen earlier in the menu. Which is to say, while the savory courses came wrapped in so many layers of flavor, textural, and visual novelty as to altogether approach abstraction, it is clear, here, what Alinea is doing and why.
In much the same fashion, the restaurant’s more abstract desserts succeed in surprising without polarizing. There’s a presentation of concentric bowls–the inner-most one containing yellow miso, matcha shortbread, and sweet potato custard transformed into all manner of powder, gummy, and confectionary forms. These textures–while hard to digest when applied towards ingredients that lack any resonance with the guest–succeed when embracing such pleasant flavors. Alinea’s famous “balloon,” of course, lands somewhere between nostalgia and abstraction. Its form–an actual, floating balloon complete with string–can certainly 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 altogether surreal. 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 standard green apple taffy, with the weight of the “trick” being placed on the edible nature of the form and the experiential effect consuming helium in a three Michelin star restaurant provides.
Alinea’s tasting menu–as long as you have dined there–ends with a superlative expression of abstraction. Back in the day, a silicone mat would be placed over guests’ tables and the two most senior chefs in the kitchen (often including “Grant” himself) would drizzle a kaleidoscope of sauces, then place a range of bits, bobs, and doodads, across and around the “canvas.” It was an intimate and enrapturing experience that served as a touching capstone to dinner, no matter how one felt about the nature of the food served.
Nowadays, diners in The Gallery are subject to a communal demonstration wherein the “canvases” are pulled down from the ceiling, having floated above patrons’ heads throughout the meal. Each is placed at the center of the table, the music is set, the smoke machine is switched on, and a stream of what seems to be the entire back of house staff each, in turn, adds their flourish in the creation of the final dessert. What this variant of the presentation lacks in intimacy, it gains in showmanship. The whole performance takes little more than a couple minutes, but it commands your attention with total sensory overload. The dish that is ultimately served on the canvas can contain a range of flavors from carrot and cider to cranberry and maple. The elements take a variety of forms from creamy to crunchy, slick to powdered, making prodigious use of liquid nitrogen. It all tastes pleasant–and exploring the range 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–than your actual review of the establishment, the question of comparing it to Rainforest Cafe can now be appropriately tackled. As you have already elucidated, Rainforest Cafe utilizes its signage, setting, and mascots to divert attention from ordinary–even middling–food and empower the frontline staff to operate efficiently (without any requisite roleplaying). The theme restaurant asserts the value of its experience via comprehensive world-building, allowing the comestibles–save for some kitschy naming conventions–to recede into the background and play things safe. The only obvious thematic connections on the menu–beverages served in ostentatious glassware and a pyrotechnic brownie sundae–are sure not to ruffle any feathers given their indulgent ingredients. In this manner, the restaurant transcends its traditional role as a place of sustenance and transforms into a multisensory space where food merely grounds the idealized experience of “dining in nature” as, ostensibly, satisfying a basic need. Rainforest Cafe, in a manner which is endemic to the theme restaurant form, serves up entertainment with a side of fries. It amounts to a sweeping, starlit stage for celebratory meals where even the most backwards palate will not feel out of place.
In many ways, Alinea achieves the same effect as Rainforest Cafe while embodying the inverse of all its values. Rather than displaying any obvious signage, Alinea maintains an austere, mysterious façade on North Halstead Street in Lincoln Park. Its interior–rather any foliage, aquariums, or artificial night sky–features greyscale tones and uninspired abstract artwork. The restaurant’s mascots–“Grant,” the genius magician, and “Nick,” the bean counter–fade into the background rather than work to enliven the experience through forging an emotional connection with guests. Yes, the mascots possess a pride in what Alinea does–but not so much that they are willing to sing the restaurant’s praises (or, in “Nick’s” case, even dine there routinely). Ultimately, they serve to wrap the establishment in yet another layer of mystery, asserting its fundamental worth without embodying–like “Cha Cha” and friends–any of its essential values. Alinea’s hospitality team takes its cue from these mascots, operating with choreographed precision and rehearsed one-liners without ever striking the soul. They, too, operate with a smug assurance as to the restaurant’s value without any of the humility or sincere self-expression that make service encounters memorable. This makes for a thoroughly “corporate” hospitality culture whose rigors are channeled towards the efficient delivery of the tasting menu. This, in a sense, is similar to Rainforest Cafe’s own corporate hospitality culture (albeit, one where servers’ efficiency lends itself to guests’ enjoyment of the larger space).
Whereas Rainforest Cafe’s trappings tantalize guests for the experience to come, Alinea’s “outer shell” is altogether foreboding. As with most luxury marketing, Alinea understands that to try too hard or spell out its implicit value is to ruin the illusion altogether. Of course, this strategy of impenetrability is offset by media portrayals of the restaurant and coveted ratings from local, national, and international critics. Social media, likewise, provides Alinea with a ceaseless guerrilla marketing operation manned by customers seeking, retroactively, to justify the price paid for their experience. 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 choosing to pay the ticket price. Thus, a dichotomy emerges: while Rainforest Cafe makes the nature of its promised experience altogether obvious (since the food lacks salience), Alinea shrouds its experience so as to place the greatest emphasis possible on its cuisine.
This obfuscation, in essence, forms a convenient alibi for Alinea’s pervasive lack of warmth. Under the guise of delaying guests’ gratification, of keeping them on pins and needles until the “show” begins, “Grant” and his gang can indulge in any number of hospitality sins. The austere façade, the cloistered 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]!” Rather than good cheer and deference, patrons find themselves face-to-face with three-Michelin-starred robots: slender figures clad uniformly in dark attire, programmed to smile and laugh on command, yet ceaseless in their devotion to delivering “the experience.” In some sense, the staff is hard-coded to think that the only value a meal at Alinea may provide comes from guests’ passive enjoyment of the kitchen’s carefully choreographed creations.
This is to say, the restaurant contends that multisensory smoke and mirrors can succeed in replacing the “human element” of hospitality. Alinea asserts that the presence of a chef-patron, managing partner, or longstanding wine director is altogether unnecessary so long as the dishes come out accurately and spectacularly. Perfectly packaged, prepaid, and replicated ad nauseum, dinner at the restaurant demands nothing more from the staff than that they hit their 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 demographic information. There may even be room for the occasional quip or clever ad lib. Yet, even the greatest interpersonal flourishes from team Alinea come across as concocted, as something shoehorned into the experience in a nominal fashion to transcend the cookie-cutter nature of the meal. Relative to the somber mood which prevails in the dining room, these moments–no doubt–shine. However, they often succeed not due to their sincerity but, rather, thanks the stark contrast they draw from the stilted interactions which characterize most of one’s time in the space.
Ultimately, these little jokes and “meta” moments do not represent any real breaking of the “fourth wall” of fine dining. Instead, they falter as ham-fisted efforts 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 and expression of the “true self” in service encounters. Clearly, neither “Grant” nor “Nick” possess that interpersonal spark, and, thus, the hospitality at Alinea–for all its precision–comes across as flat-footed. Any attempts to zest things up at the table–the machinations of control freaks looking to reduce diverse human encounters to their lowest common dominator–amount to putting lipstick on a pig. It’s Alinea’s culture, down to the very roots, that is poisonous, and any attempt to prove otherwise strikes you as so much blatherskite: “look at how 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 part of the trade off, a consequence of the rigorous training required to conjure such magical tasting menus night after night. Sure, the staff seems a bit psychotic–strung out in pursuit of the plethora of tasks to be done–but wait until you taste the food! No matter the hang up (with regards to the hospitality rendered), 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 to be in service of the “show.” When guests–on the hook for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars–finally take their seats, they are treated to a dinner like never before. But just what, exactly, are they being served? Parlor tricks, pomp and circumstance, song and dance, smoke and mirrors, and jabberwocky with a side of cynicism.
Yes, Alinea’s food is hard to draw any parallels to. Molecular gastronomy (a moniker which, itself, has become a pejorative term for microscopic portions of fussy tweezer food) means little to a new generation of diners who lack any grounding in the European dining tradition. To wit, how can one appreciate the deconstruction of a dish or the transformation of an ingredient for which they have no reference point? Yes, the techniques themselves are impressive. The application of scientific inquiry towards the refinement of flavor and texture will never go away. But the most talented contemporary chefs treat molecular gastronomy only as one of many tools to draw on when telling a story of place, time, and personage through food.
Showcasing novel techniques is rarely treated as an end in itself–in fact, you would say such a method approaches culinary malpractice if the restaurant in question has not made clear (like, for example, Mugaritz) that the $300 one is paying for a tasting menu will go towards experimentation rather than the pursuit of pleasure. No, the best molecular gastronomy restaurants you have visited–Somni, minibar, and Atera–were brimming with charm and good humor. The chefs, though from Spain and Denmark respectively, mingled technical virtuosity with a good dose of nostalgia. To dine at these restaurants never felt like a series of “tech demos” but, rather, like having a dalliance with the idealized “geniuses” in the kitchens. They were not withholding figures (à la “Grant,” whose menus speak nearly nothing of himself), but proper chef-patrons who had mastered the most advanced techniques so as to direct them towards pleasing customers. In this pursuit, personal story, shared nostalgia, and all manner of “classic” dining tropes are employed to ensure success. Molecular gastronomy forms a boon, not a tether, towards crafting the best dining experience possible.
In contrast, at Alinea, every sacrifice is made for the sake of showcasing the molecular gastronomy–guests be damned! Warmth of atmosphere and service–as you have discussed extensively–are denied in favor of setting the stage for “Grant’s” culinary creations. And the food, when it does arrive, is sure to shock visually but rarely, if ever, regales the palate. Presentations take precedence, and they seem to be tailored more towards taking photos–towards perpetuating the guerilla public relations work “Grant” and “Nick” feel is beneath them as owners–than enhancing one’s enjoyment of the food. Guests are given a kaleidoscope of multicolored bites of varying temperatures and textures–hidden in all manner of receptacles from floor to ceiling–set to music, smoke, and helium-spiked chipmunk 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 featured as cameos at “Alinea 2.0” over the past couple years. Truth be told, no dish from “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 a most-wonderful “moment” in the dining room. Yet, in terms of flavor, it presents nothing more than the most average apple taffy. Likewise, the “table dessert,” though having changed in the manner of its presentation, has failed to 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 a fitting end to the meal, either at “1.0” or “2.0.”
“Black Truffle Explosion” and “Hot Potato, Cold Potato” were small–you might even say inconspicuous–bites that struck guests with their intensity of flavor and resonated even 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 that rivaled whole plates of pasta. The latter, taken in a manner more akin to a shot, used a sudden temperature contrast to accent a creamy, impossibly rich thimble 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.”
Using molecular gastronomy to craft dishes that rival traditional forms of cookery (in terms of flavor) is quite difficult. “Grant” has used up all his “genius,” and his flunkies–in turn–have only bastardized the restaurant’s cuisine more and more with time. So, the obvious thing to do is twist Alinea from being a great restaurant into a marketable “brand.” This means abandoning any pretense of delivering pleasure and pumping out as many superficially “novel” creations as they 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 called pleasure! As long as a dish’s flavor is not altogether off-putting, the majority of guests are certain to get lost in its presentation and never interrogate its ultimate value. For, as “Nick” has made clear before, Alinea has little need of repeat customers. Rather, the restaurant is content to dress up uninspired bites of food with a boatload of frills, ensure guests get all the pictures they need, and send them out the door with the sense–like the worst caricature of any abstract art–that to be disappointed is to admit they didn’t “get it.”
Myriad elements of the Alinea experience–smug, withholding, and contrary to all that makes dining transcendent–work to aggrandize (“aggrantize?”) food that, at the end of the day, falls completely flat. Patrons, many of whom lack the requisite experience to confidently critique a “three Michelin star” meal, are gaslit into thinking the problem lies with them. Little matter, for the whole tasting menu revolves more around a series of presentational set pieces than it does any attempt to deliver phenomenal flavor. So long as guests get their pictures of the kitchen, the balloon, and the table dessert, they can brag to their friends 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 the restaurant is doing, no real effort to either educate or amaze. Alinea is no longer a temple of gastronomy. It is, instead, a despicable den of conspicuous consumption, a most cynical of restaurants–altogether detached from the heart and soul of hospitality–that has contrived a way to sell customers both literal and figurative “hot air.”
In essence, dining at the restaurant comes closer to visiting a stage set (at a community theater) than any serious engagement with the art of dining. Does that ring any bells? In the final analysis, you think the ties that bind Rainforest Cafe to Alinea are now as clear as day. In fact, you think Alinea is far worse than Rainforest Cafe because it delivers much of the same effect shrouded in a sea of pretension. While the former could not be more clear about its value proposition (and the small role food plays therein), the latter has contrived a way to avoid pleasing guests (with the rudiments of genuine hospitality) while carrying itself with such smug self-assurance, such unearned authority that any dissatisfaction felt with the food is cast as a personal failing 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 is often spent peering behind the lens of one’s camera, capturing every iota of the staff’s prestidigitation for the sake of digital followers who–by the very nature of the medium–care little if the cuisine actually tasted good. In the same manner, Rainforest Cafe’s customers keep their eyes glued to the surroundings, stealing pictures with “Cha Cha” and friends or staging a celebratory family 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 than ten times the price of Rainforest Cafe’s average check size. But can the restaurant’s “new train of thought” really be said to advance American dining?
Mind you, we are not talking about the use of multisensory modes to spur a deeper emotional connection to food. Alinea is not working to bring humankind closer to nature, to bring it in touch with the transcendent value of art, or to inspire a reckoning with the backwards nature of the American food system. The restaurant does nothing to champion native foodways, celebrate little-known traditions, or assert cuisine’s power to connect people across cultures.
Alinea is fine dining for fans of superhero movies. It’s globalist gourmet cooking, chum for the conspicuous consumption crowd. The restaurant’s presentations amount to much ado about nothing while its pervasive culture of smug superiority shields lackluster dishes from receiving their just desserts. The staff, desperately underpaid, should feel proud of how hard they work. And yet, it all amounts to spinning in circles–to doing anything and everything but comforting guests and serving them truly great food. It’s a system that has only survived in the shadows: perpetuated by customers’ worst instincts to both avoid 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 the soul, the fundamental nature of performance–be it screen or stage–entails the baring 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 most shallow form of entertainment: literal smoke and mirrors. It’s the dramaturgical equivalent of junk food–and, you must say, junk food itself would strike guests as more pleasing than most of the dishes served. To wit, diners have followed up their meals at Alinea with hot dogs and hamburgers from local establishments for as long as the restaurant has been open!
You do not doubt that Alinea was once a truly groundbreaking restaurant. “Grant’s” reputation at Trio was surely not built only on smoke and mirrors, 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 stay relevant, to continue milking as much money out of the brand as possible, the restaurant has undergone a dire descent into Flanderization. Whereas novel presentations once put the proverbial “cherry on top” of innovative, flavor-focused preparations, Alinea, today, only exists as a sad parody of itself. The kitchen has resolved to play for the cameras rather than the palates before them. They have gotten lightheaded from sniffing their own farts for so long that they have altogether forgotten how to please guests. Meanwhile, the reserve their patrons feel–which works to prevent frank criticism from ever reaching the chef’s ears–is misinterpreted as a steadfast sense of wonder over their warped and worthless 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 can rely on a menu of comestibles that–while unexceptional–makes an honest effort to please. Alinea, with all the ostentation of a wannabee luxury brand, denies every element that makes a restaurant valuable. Without the guest knowing the score, it sacrifices both cuisine and hospitality for the sake of an emotionally-barren performance. It masquerades as a “three Michelin star” restaurant but amounts to a sad carnival sideshow with a few snacks served on the side.
Sure, international diners like it: rather than embrace Midwestern food they don’t understand (or look down upon), they can indulge in a level of culinary abstraction that nobody understands. For, at the end of the day, you think Alinea is ashamed of Chicago, of Chicagoans’ sense of taste, and it seeks the easy success that comes with denying any sense of place rather than engage in the far harder work of championing “flyover country.” How else can one explain the restaurant’s steadfast refusal to please native palates, or engage any of the charm for which Midwestern hospitality is known? Why does one get the sense that “Grant” and “Nick” only care to increase their profile on the coasts, to win the respect of well-heeled travelers who would otherwise dread dining in such a backwards city filled to the brim with steakhouses? Oh, they are fine selling overpriced meal kits to unsuspecting locals during the pandemic–pretending they have anything to teach us about comfort food.
Alinea is a business, a successful one. It has chosen success over quality. It has chosen success over value. And it has chosen success over hospitality. While Rainforest Cafe’s gift shop features Beanie Babies and apparel, Alinea’s slings cookbooks, Portholes, and Made-In cookware. But for the some of the finer details, the gambit is the same. Theme restaurants can offer a memorable environment, an enjoyable novelty, at the end of the day. But just be sure you know that’s all you’re signing up for–and be prepared to go home hungry.