The Most Elusive Restaurants
It's the second night in Chicago and I get constantly reminded in the cold that I am not in San Francisco, where rarely do winter nights see the temperature gauge hit below 40. Away from those friendly nights, I am walking up North Halsted Street, heavily armed up with a waterproof jacket, a knit cap, inch-thick fleece gloves and anti-snow The North Face boots. Tonight's destination is Alinea.
Three-Michelin stared Alinea has been bestowed the distinction of one of the America's best restaurants since its door opened in 2005. Patrons there are privileged to receive best possible food and service, a once-in-a-lifetime-dining experience. Alinea is not just a restaurant: it's a beacon of the modern culinary industry. Chicagoans are proud to have Alinea on the list of the local finest for connoisseurs who visit the city, for sure.
And now, I am still walking and checking the address of every single building as I pass by. 1718, 1719.....1722...1725?? Where is 1723? Did I just miss it? It can't be!? I turn around and start walking back. Then, right in front of an ordinary-looking, dark-colored building, I find a black sign board. On the board read two simple descriptions:
"VALET PARKING $11"
On the windows of the building hung thick curtains, and the door, so dimly lit that one might need a flashlight to find the nob, is located in a couple of yards back from the front. There is no sign on the building, no red carpet leading up to the door, nor a runway, none whatsoever. Only other thing in front of the building is seemingly a doorman as armed as I am, who is staring at me.
"Hi," finally he says.
"Hi, umm, is this Alinea?" I ask.
"Yes, it is. I know it's hard to tell," he half-smirks, for he must know that I am not dining here but just sightseeing.
" I am sure it's always packed and busy," I fumble, starting to feel embarrassed.
"Yes, it is," he replys with a look of a proud butler.
"Ummm, they have other locations?"
They have one, actually. He tells me it is called Next and is in the downtown. It's only a few minutes past 7:30, so I decide to go one more round of tour. After thanking him for the help, I hurry to a train station.
As soon as getting off a train, I wonder if I have come to the right neighborhood. There are absolutely no commercial buildings in the area as far as I can see and no one walking around either. All I see are apartments and a couple of what looks like small industrial buildings of some kinds. This is a typical residential area just OUTSIDE of the downtown. Damn it! But I still can check around a little farther and so keep walking.
Three blocks from the station, a huge complex, commercial building sits around the corner of North Morgan and West Fulton. This must be it. My morale suddenly soars. And then, out of nowhere, comes a police car and it stops beside me. One of the cops sticks out his head from the half-opened window as if ordering a burger at a drive-through.
"What are you doing here?" He asks me with a familiar tone that I have heard many many times on cheesy detective shows on TV.
"I am looking for a restaurant called Next. Should be in this building," I answer as normally as possible, knowing if stuttering I draw a suspicion. Not that I am really a suspicious individual.
After examining me for longer than necessary, he pulls up the window and drives away. O.M.G! I need to get out of here before he sees me again and arrests me. Then I see a guy standing at the corner of the building who is as similarly dressed as the guy at Alinea. I approach him.
"May I assist you?" He seems to know what I am here for.
"I am looking for Next. But I can't find it."
"Oh, yes, it's right there," he says, pointing at the first floor of the building so bare and dark that it appears nothing but a garage.
Totally confused, I am standing and looking at the spot he indicates. Absolutely nothing. He must have heard me wrong. He senses my confusion and leads me to what looks like a makeshift shed, which is actually a front door. What the....?? Again, no signs, no red carpets and no sounds coming out. Nor is there a vibe to suck in. Instead, I am breathing in the frozen air in the complete stillness of night. No bueno.
Then he chuckles and says, "they want to be a LITTLE discreet." Nice. That is the funniest joke I have ever heard.
On the way back to my hotel, I am feeling rejected. There is something about the two restaurants, some intangible assets that make them exclusive and even aloof. And I would like to know what it is should I ever be able to get a table there and experience their excellence.
Now I am hungry. Hope the burger shop around the corner of my hotel is still open.