• Alinea
  • What happens when babies run freely at Alinea

Did you hear about the worst people in the history of the planet? Alinea chef Grant Achatz tweeted about them on Saturday evening:

Tbl brings 8mo.Old. It cries. Diners mad. Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2crying? Ppl take infants 2 plays? Concerts? Hate saying no,but..

The result was outrage! At least that’s what you would get from a number of sources who picked up the story, such as NBC 5 (“One of Chicago’s top restaurants is at the center of a controversy . . . “) and the blog 312 Dining Diva, which made a symphony in one note of high dudgeon out of the outraged responses on Twitter (“Wait. Someone brought an infant to Alinea? What in the actual fuck?”)

Apparently there are a lot of people who are just waiting for the chance to pounce on babies for their sins in public (and maybe suck up to Grant Achatz a little), and there was more than a little resentful seething on display aimed at the inconsiderate little bastards. Me, I have kids, and I’ve spent more than a little energy judging their appropriateness for restaurant settings while refusing to raise them on Chuck E. Cheese and chicken fingers, but in fairness, the most obnoxious diners I’ve ever been next to were pretty much all of drinking (without a sippy cup) age.

In any case, if this story was about outrage to some people, it was more like a comedy free-for-all in my corner of Twitter and the Internet generally:

Michael Nagrant:

What if your baby wants to stage at Alinea? That’s ok, right? My 2 year old is killer with tweezers.

Josh Steinfeld:

Quickly scanning Twitter. Did Achatz eat/serve baby?


So …. A friend of a friend told me that a woman gave birth while dining at Alinea last night … Achatz delivered the baby … Wow! LOL

and me:

What would Trotter have done? Either cook an entire meal just for the baby, or have them all killed, I’m not sure

And before it was over it had produced both an Alinea Baby Twitter account and (funnier, to me) a review of Alinea by the baby on Yelp:

I must conclude with a dire assessment: Though the food (or what I had of it; Mommy always protects me from the choke-y bits) at Alinea is truly world-class, I cannot recommend it to my fellow babies. Vote with your footy pajamas, fellow infants and join me in my boycott of this restaurant! See how it does without us.

Now, there are some real issues here having to do with Alinea’s unique approach to being possibly the most acclaimed restaurant in America—specifically, its ticketing system. Many high-end, much-in-demand restaurants extract a credit card for reservations, but as the chef and manager of an almost equally acclaimed restaurant in Chicago admitted to me, nailing people with a several-hundred-dollar charge for not showing is not exactly a way to make customers love you and speak highly of you to others, and they rarely actually do it.

Alinea and its sibling Next are in a different position, though, in that they actually sell tickets, which like tickets to the theater or a concert are nonrefundable. The presumption is that if you can’t go, tough luck, you eat dinner or the ticket. That works as long as crowds are beating down your door—as they were in past years at Next. But right at this moment, we’re seeing the first menu at Next that isn’t a runaway success—Next Steakhouse—with reports that about a quarter of the dining room capacity is going unsold at a restaurant that previously sold out every night for close to three years. Next has apparently run into the problem that Alinea Baby’s parents faced: are you willing to gamble that much money on a meal that you might not get to enjoy?

Next Steakhouse, for the first time, seems to be a menu that doesn’t justify the gamble at its (very high) price to enough people to fill the room. (It also probably demonstrates that the audience for steak houses and the audience for artful dining concepts don’t overlap as much as they hoped, but that’s a separate issue.) Anyway, you can be tough on diners as long as they’re willing to take it, but at some point the iron-fist approach some tweeted in response to Achatz may do you more harm than good.

There’s also another very 2010’s issue here, which is, as much as we’re all interested in everything chef Achatz thinks and does, and as much as we imagine that if we follow him on Twitter we’re in his inner circle (along with 81,000 other people), maybe chefs shouldn’t be tweeting, even thoughtfully/inquiringly, about paying guests. This isn’t the first time Achatz had brought such an issue up; just three days before he had noted this ironically:

A guest coming to Next tomorrow has a “no red meat” restriction. Chicago Steak.

In a much, much smaller way, I know how it feels to say something thinking you’re just chatting with your friends, only to remember that hey, the Internet actually goes to the entire planet; the first time a restaurateur responded to things we were saying on LTHForum, it was a shock to realize that, actually, we weren’t just among ourselves. Social media lulls a lot of us into thinking it’s just socializing and not also media.

But let’s get back to the snark, which flew so fast that by the time actual reporting by actual news outlets tried to cover the story as a story, that just seemed hopelessly square and out-of-date. (As, uh, I can’t help but feel I’m demonstrating right now.) Babies. Whatever. Like the meaning of life that Monty Python finally arrived at (“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”), the answer is banally simple: really, be considerate and don’t take your baby to fine-dining spots, but people, try to lighten up toward parents, they’re usually doing the best they can under the circumstances of mental confusion and semideafness. Oh, and no, this wasn’t a problem invented yesterday. Sarah Brennan:

I worked at [Charlie Trotter’s] and we loved kids! Crying babies got held by staff so parents could enjoy. Pre social media!!