Chicago seemed empty on Friday. It was due to social distancing, but thanks to the rain and the gloomy day, the void felt greater. Yet there was still a crowd of cars and SUVs lined up along Halsted Street in front of Alinea. It was an unusual scene outside one of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants — like school was out, with parents queuing up to wait for their children. One Alinea worker, standing outside in a poncho, laughed at the comparison. “I’d be much more excited to wait for beef Wellington than my own kid,” he said.
Like many restaurants around the city, Alinea has adapted to the state-mandated closure of all dining rooms. A dinner at the bastion of modernist cooking typically costs around $300 per person, but on March 18, the restaurant announced that it would offer to-go meals for $35 a piece — an unexpected move for any fine dining establishment, much less Chicago’s only restaurant with three Michelin stars. The first batch of dinners, featuring beef Wellington, sold out within five hours.
Diners order the meals on Tock, the reservations site founded by Alinea Group CEO Nick Kokonas, which typically traffics in prepaid tickets for the some of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, then pick them up at the appointed time. Customers aren’t permitted to walk inside Alinea’s luxurious dining room — remodeled in 2016 — which has been converted into a carryout distribution center full of brown paper bags. A paper sign on the door asks, politely, for people to stay out. (It also declares “no public restrooms.”)
Staffers with tablets check in customers as they arrive — the majority via automobile for curbside pickup, rather than on foot. Eventually, a begloved staffer emerges, holding a brown paper bag.
Alinea’s first to-go meal included the beef Wellington dish (Alinea swapped the customary beef tenderloin with 48-hour Prime Black Angus short rib), 50/50 mashed potatoes (half butter, half potato), and creme brûlée. The beef Wellington arrives in a foil packing; diners, following the included instructions, heat it up in their own microwave or oven later.
The meal includes supplemental courses as well: a squash curry soup; compressed mango and cantaloupe; a salad with vinaigrette; wild sautéed mushrooms; Brussels sprouts with shallots, bacon, and black pepper; and dinner rolls. For dessert, the instructions suggest if customers have a torch that they could “re-brulee the sugar.” Or just eat as is.
Alinea is billing its offerings as comfort food, items that can be easily translated for carryout. The restaurant will periodically change menus as long as its dining room stays closed, which could be at least through April; last week, it unveiled a new menu with coq au vin.
So far, customers have eagerly taken to the challenge of trying to plate their own dinners in full Alinea style. They’ve also been showing off birthdays and anniversaries celebrated at home with the high-end carryout — a needed ray of sunshine right now for those who can afford to be fancy.