I recently had the pleasure of dining at Alinea with one of our Sales Directors, Greg Brown. We were in Chicago visiting Sears, who has been a client for several months now. I remembered Alinea from the May 2006 issue of Wired; the article was titled, "My Compliments to the Lab". Since we were in Chicago, I had to go. I am too much of a nerd and foodie not to.
Alinea reminded me of how being unique and great can spark word of mouth in a profound manner. The genius behind Alinea is Grant Achatz, who is only 32 but worked under the infamous Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, a restaurant that is widely known as one of the best, if not the best, in the country. But Alinea is far different.
Walking into the restaurant, which is quite cozy (not cramped) with two levels, you notice the open kitchen on your right. Grant works there in the kitchen every evening, many times until 3:30am. I noticed that there were about 15 chefs in the kitchen (all looked 30 or younger); all were dressed in very professional modern, white attire. There was a MacBook in the center of the kitchen that Grant constantly referred to in between preparations. Two hostesses greeted us (also under 30) and took our coats. Instead of a stuffy feeling, you felt energy. The hostesses were very friendly and professional, saying, "Welcome to Alinea", in unison.
They sat us at a nice table where we could see ourselves in a mirror. Only the mirror was at the back of a long tunnel under a staircase. It appeared to be another room, but sure enough, it was just a mirror – looking at us. Another "cool" moment. At a Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) conference a year ago, I had the pleasure of seeing "Scott" speak. He has worn a nametag for 2,285 days straight and evangelizes on being approachable (essentially he is speaking about the power of openness and communication – "getting real"). His main message was: do something worthwhile with your life, be "that guy", be something that when people ask you what you do for a living their response is "that's cool". Back to Alinea: it was clear to me, by now, that Alinea was going to be a cool experience. There was no way this meal was going to suck.
Our waiter was a sommelier. He looked like a good friend of mine in Austin, the founder of SKYLIST, except he was a little heavier set and wore a modern-looking suit and tie. He was also young and looked wise but in a "high-tech industry" sort of way, not in a stuffy sommelier sort of way. We talked about our options, of which there were only 4. A 12-course tasting menu (takes 3.5 hours), a 24-course tasting menu (takes 4.5 hours), standard wine pairing, and "premium" wine pairing. It was 8pm, so we went for the 12-course and he recommend the standard wine pairing unless we were really picky. Although I love good wine, we picked standard; this was, after all, Alinea.
During the meal, we had plenty of time to talk with each other and the waiters. The tables were perfectly distanced from each other where there is just the right level of noise. We learned that Alinea had just been rated #1 in the country, essentially beating out the long-time winner, The French Laundry. And this was for a restaurant that was the same age as Bazaarvoice (we both opened around May 2005).
In closing, I would love to hear from you on what your most memorable restaurants are, and if you have learned anything from them that you have applied to your business. Some of my other favorites are Morimoto in Philadelphia (#1 on my list for food and almost #1 for interior, right after Alinea now), Michael Mina in Las Vegas (unreal seafood), and Uchi in Austin (unreal sushi and authentic, exotic Japanese cuisine).
Quick note: all of these photos came from Flickr, where there are 782 photos matching the keyword "Alinea". I did experience the dishes that I included photos for.
Update on May 16, 2008:
My good friend, Matt Cohen (CEO of OneSpot), just sent me this article in The New Yorker about Grant Achatz fight with Stage IV tongue cancer. It is a fascinating read, and I sincerely hope Grant wins this battle.