Micro Restaurants’ Latest Request: Pay-Before-You-Dine

When micro restaurants first started popping up across the U.S. last year, a gasp spread nationwide. Fifteen-seat restaurants serving 20+ pricey prix-fixe courses at kitchen counters across from the chef who gives you no right to choose which dishes you want? Blasphemous. But shock is intriguing, and limitations yield creativity, and so these micro restaurants have become the culinary scene’s new Cool Best Friend. And like all relationships, the Cool Best Friend has realized how tirelessly doting its culinary buddy is and has decided to take full advantage. Micro’s latest request: pay before you dine, not after.

Instead of receiving the check post-meal and doing the little “ I’ll pay, no, please, really, me” dance upon the counter, some micro-restaurants are demanding the tango before the meal. Eighteen-percent gratuity included. By paying pre-meal, the restaurants are less likely to face sudden cancellations, and more likely to ruin dates before they begin. 

The latest restaurant to join the system: New York’s two Michelin-starred spot Atera, which has 20+ courses for $165 ($700 for two with wine pairings) and 13 seats. Other pioneers of the trend: three Michelin-starred Brooklyn Fare in downtown Brooklyn, and Next and Alinea in Chicago. 

What will be micro’s next request? Dining with your hands if your boots are scuffed? Eating only the bread crusts if your tie is crooked? Oh, you gotta love inequitable relationships. 

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Chicago Openings: Elizabeth Restaurant, Paladar, Two, Katherine Anne Confections

From foam offered everywhere, to food served on antennas at Alinea, and now meals in terrariums. Enter: Elizabeth Restaurant, where chef Iliana Regan of underground supper club One Sister, puts her foraging skills and whimsical culinary concepts to good use with three prix-fixe menus (owl, diamond, and deer). Trippy doesn’t even begin to describe it.  

On the west side of town, find three other new eateries. Paladar, which derives its name from privately owned restaurants in Cuba, serves up Jose Gonzalez’s family recipes. It also bills itself as a rum bar, so you’ll want to start your meal with a mojito to get the full experience.  

For a meatier American meal, head to West Town’s Two for pork cheeks, chard cooked in bacon fat, craft brew on tap, and charcuterie.  

Otherwise, just skip dinner altogether and go for the sweets at Katherine Anne Confections. Truffles come in unusual flavors, and homemade caramels are always a good bet, but it’s all about indulging in the drinking chocolate menu here.

Secret Plots by Chicago’s Alinea and New York’s Eleven Madison Park Now Unveiled

What are those sneaky award-winning restaurants Alinea and Eleven Madison Park (EMP) up to? According to some sleuthing done by Chicago Tribune reporter Kevin Pang, it appears the two eateries have hatched a collaborative plan.

The video shows (below) EMP employees packing up the restaurant and heading to Grand Central, which is followed by the Alinea staff boxing each other up and shipping off the crew to New York. It ends with the tag line, “21st Century Limited,” which, given them going to and arriving in Grand Central, we can only assume refers to the old Twentieth Century Limited passenger train that ran between New York to Chicago. After vague statements by both parties, we finally know what’s going on.

“Two of the country’s most-acclaimed fine-dining restaurants will trade cities and spaces for one week this fall,” said Pang in an article today.“New York’s Eleven Madison Park and Chicago’s Alinea—three Michelin-starred restaurants both—will swap chefs, kitchens and dining rooms, opening in essence pop-up restaurants in each other’s space.”

That means chef Grant Achatz’ Alinea (with him in it!) will occupy EMP in New York starting September 26 until the 30, and Daniel Humm’s team at EMP will do the same in Chicago starting October 10 until the 14. Tickets will be available soon in coming weeks via its Facebook page. Is anyone else as excited and intrigued as I am? Now comes the fight for a seat, but at $495 at EMP, it might not fill up as fast as you think.

Chicago’s Food Truck War

If you’re checking your Twitter feed these days to find out where all the best Chicago food trucks are dropping anchor for lunch, you’re better off checking in with the City Council. If you haven’t heard, food trucks are illegal in Chicago. More precisely, for a food truck to be in operation in Chicago, everything must be prepackaged in a licensed kitchen before hitting the streets. So, while cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Austin have long embraced the food truck phenomenon, current laws prevent Chicago’s best from cooking, cutting, and prepping food on board a truck. But the fists (and boning knives and rolling pins and butane torches) have been raised. The Chicago Food Truck Revolution is imminent.

A few weeks ago, a standing-room only crowd of eager restaurateurs packed into an auditorium at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, hoping for a clue about to how to mobilize their movement. On the stage sat some of the hottest movable chefs from around the country. Ludo Lefebrvre of pop-up restaurant fame in Los Angeles stirred the audience with descriptions of his new fried chicken truck. Mary Sue Milliken, also from L.A., spoke enthusiastically about how the Border Grill Truck has driven up her restaurants’ popularity and sales. San Francisco’s Aaron Noveshen, co-founder and director of culinary development for The Culinary Edge/Mobi Munch/Pacific Catch, regaled guests with tales of a fleet of mobile food trucks zig-zagging around the city’s perilous streets.

Also on the panel sat Tiffany Kurtz, founder of Flirty Cupcakes, who for all intents and purposes runs what could be called Chicago’s first gourmet food truck. The audience listened as she explained how she got around Chicago’s tough laws governing mobile food. “It was difficult,” she explained later, “primarily just because there is nothing created or developed that tells you exactly what the requirements are for establishing a mobile cupcake truck. All the rules and restrictions are in various documents, are vague, and not easy to find.”

But just because the laws are tough doesn’t mean Chicagoans are backing down. Word on the street is that chefs from Alinea, Big Star, Urban Belly, Frontera Grill, Perennial, Graham Elliot, and Naha are raring to rev their engines. And gauging from the sheer amount of National Restaurant Association attendees climbing aboard the MobiMunch demo truck last month, there’s probably a handful more eager to get themselves a set of wheels.

Ray Villeman, founder of MobiMunch mobile trucks, has firm opinions about what it’s going to take for the city to get up and rolling. “Chicago, like other major cities that have embraced the gourmet food truck movement, will need to build a large consumer base of support, actively campaign to local politicians for change, and assist in crafting new ‘rules’ to coexist with the brick and mortar restaurants. Chicago should look at the example of other major cities that have overcome similar barriers and leverage lessons learned,” he says.

Aiming to do just that is Chef Matt Maroni, one of the leaders of the food truck revolution in Chicago. This week he opened a 13-seat sandwich shop in Edgewater called Gaztro-Wagon, named after the truck he hopes to get rolling once his proposal passes through city council. He has been working hard to build up local support through an organization he founded called Chicago Food Trucks.

“I never saw myself doing this, but when I started looking at a unique concept with little start up capital, I saw that food trucks and carts are what lacked in the city of Chicago,” says Maroni on how he got started not only with Gaztro-Wagon, but also with Chicago Food Trucks, an organization dedicated to getting this movement off the ground. “When I started looking into the legislations and codes is when I realized that I had a real opportunity to make a difference and bring this to light. So I did the research and worked about 12 hours a day for over a month gathering info and authoring the proposed legislation. I was unemployed at the time and it helped me get out of a rut and keep my mind busy. I took it on knowing that it may pick up steam or it may fizzle, but I know that as of now it is full of steam and Chicago is headed in the right direction.”

City Council meets this week to discuss Maroni’s proposed ordinance. If it doesn’t pass, there’ll be no roving short rib tacos like you can get from LA’s wildly popular Kogi Korean BBQ truck. There will be no Nutella and banana crepes like the ones the Le Gamin truck in New York spins out. Certainly, there will be no chicken and waffles like those from Lucky J’s Trailer in Austin, TX. If it doesn’t pass, it will be an embarrassment to the city of Chicago. But if it does pass, then LA, NYC, and all the other food truck cities better get ready for some fierce competition. Let the vendrification begin.

Chicago: Top 5 Places to Pretend You Have a Trust Fund

imageIf you go to the School of Art Institute, you probably do …

1. Charlie Trotter’s (North Side) – Brag about eating there but one-up yourself by claiming it doesn’t live up to the hype. 2. Alinea (Lincoln Park) – Get ready to dump around $200 per person, but that’s for 25 progressive American courses. 3. Manor (Near North Side) – Unless you have a lot of cash to burn on bottle service, don’t even think about trying to get in.

4. Moto (West Loop) – Ever been so hungry that you wanted to eat your printer paper? Well, now you can. 5. Spring (Bucktown/Wicker Park) – Shawn McClain was the James Beard Best Chef Midwest award winner for 2006. Come hungry and don’t forget to make a rezzie.

The Most Expensive Restaurants in America

imageNot to be outdone by the hotel scene, the price of entry to some restaurants is sky-high. Here’s a short list (via Forbes) of the most expensive places to nosh around the country:

Tom: Tuesday Diner in New York – Tom Colicchio’s latest innovation. Tom is only open two Tuesdays a month, and only accommodates 28 at a time. $250 per person.

L’Espalier in Boston – The prix-fixe menu starts at $75 per person, but add-ons are steep: side dishes are in the neighborhood of $24 each.

French Laundry in Napa – The famed nine-course tasting menu clocks in at $240 per patron.

Masa in New York – 29 courses, $400 a person. Sushi, sushi, sushi.

Alinea in Chicago – 24 courses, $195 per person.

Joel Robuchon at The Mansion (MGM Grand) in Las Vegas – 16 courses, $360 a person.

Urasawa in Los Angeles – 29 courses, $275 for the prix-fixe menu.