Amazement at Alinea begins months before dinner, when you pay the tab
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You know what’s great about being a newspaper columnist? The pay. I’m not kidding. They just firehose money at you — well, at me anyway; others not so much — and the odd thing is, despite years of scrubbing my pits in this continual money shower, I never paused to appreciate just how bleepin’ flush I truly am. The postponed home repairs and frequent breakdowns of our rusty 13-year-old van and the debt pit dug by two private college tuitions must have blinded me to my ridiculous wealth.
Then in April, one event utterly changed my view of myself. I am rich, Scrooge McDuck rich, upper 1 percent, baby, at least when it comes to the purchase of really, really, really expensive dinners.
My family ate at Alinea Sunday night. One of the best restaurants in the world.
And among the most costly. That part usually gets left out. Since any description of the actual dining experience would by necessity begin with my attempt to justify shelling out, ahh, $1,766.16 for one meal, best to get it out of the way, first, so I can relate to those curious — and really, who isn’t? — what you get for that sum.
Where to begin? Our two sons were born. Skip the next 20 years. They grew up, did well in high school, breezed through college, the younger finishing in three years. One graduated in May, the other graduates later this month.
College graduates get a present. It’s a tradition. I had ideas: Allen Edmonds shoes. Made in Wisconsin. I’ve been to the factory. Gorgeous. A pair of Oxford wing tips. Pricey, sure. But handy for all-important job interviews.
No shoes? How about a pen? A real fountain pen? Nope.
My older boy offered an idea of his own, almost jarring in its sweetness: Disneyland. He went to college outside of Los Angeles for four years, but had never been.
What could I say? What would you say? “Gosh buddy, I’d love to take you and your brother to a couple days at the Magic Kingdom as a reward for 17 years of gerbil-on-a-wheel academic effort. But it’s expensive…”
“Umm, sure,” is what I said, thinking gloomily: Disneyland was run-down when I visited 35 years ago.
Time passed. The older kid, who studied economics in French at the Sorbonne, did the math. A hundred bucks just to get into Disneyland. Multiplied by four Steinbergs. Times two days. Plus hotel. And food. And mouse ears.
Why not, he said, go to Alinea instead? He likes fancy dining. His brother too. It’ll cost some $1200, about the same as Disneyland.
Hmmm, two miserable sun-baked days eating curly fries at a jammed amusement park? Or a glorious dinner at Grant Achatz’s world-acclaimed restaurant in Lincoln Park?
What to do, what to do? I justified, mightily, dredging up every expensive home and car repair. That exploratory surgery on the cat: $1,400 on a dead cat. Here we get swank chow and no cats have to die. Plus the boys … our little boys. They want this. My wife, frugality itself, who grew up in Bellwood and whose father bent metal tubes for a living, agreed to the extravagance.
Now all I had to do was make a reservation. Here the amazement begins. You’d think that coughing into your fist that you are willing to shell out a mortgage payment for dinner would instantly garner a table. Wrong. At Alinea, diners pay upfront and seatings sell out months in advance. You need to plan. We agreed on a date — Saturday, June 2. Those seats became available … April 15 at 11 a.m. At the appointed moment, I was poised online … tapping, tapping … in! Saturday night was already gone. Switch to Sunday. Adapt! Overcome! Could the boys go that night? Yes!
I was so relieved to snag a reservation, it took a second to queasily grasp that the mind-boggling $1260 base price had, with 11.5 percent tax and 20 percent mandatory tip, grown to $1685.88. Maybe not so rich after all…
So that’s the story. As 5 p.m. approached on Sunday, I began to appreciate the wisdom of the pay-first system. Without it, I’d be tortured by doubts, gnawing second thoughts. I could see us all setting off for Alinea, but me instead driving madly north, hunched over the wheel, racing toward the Allen Edmonds shoe factory.
Now, having already paid, there was nothing to do but show up and eat dinner.
Which was … well, I’ll have to tell you Friday.