Best Place to Eat if Someone Else Is Paying: Alinea and L2O (tie) Credit: Photo of Alinea kitchen by Lara Kastner

The Reader’s Choice: Alinea and L2O (tie)

After dinner at Alinea with college friends, we realized our bill was half the cost of a year’s tuition, room, and board in the early 70s. Unfortunately our parents weren’t covering us this time around. But then you don’t “go out to eat” at Alinea like you do at other restaurants. Chef Grant Achatz challenges the conventions of dining out, playfully pushing limits while stimulating familiar sensations—diners are said to have teared up at the childhood memory of autumnal bonfires conjured when pheasant with cider gel is served with smoking oak leaves.

Alinea doesn’t exist to satisfy hunger. You’ll leave with a full belly, but more significant, you’ll have a lot to think about. Whoever’s picking up the tab, I’d recommend that you forgo the wine pairings and enjoy only a glass or two; otherwise, there’s way too much that’s way too good, and you risk blurring your senses, which—like your memory of this experience—you’ll want to keep sharp.

I might have chosen L2O alone for this category, but I have to wonder if there’d be an L2O without an Alinea. That’s not at all to say that L2O is an imitation—Achatz and French-trained chef Laurent Gras drink from the same stream, but at L2O it’s mostly about seafood, and perhaps the best quality seafood in Chicago.

Gras goes for tasteful visual fun. Raw tuna and hamachi are cut into a how’d-he-do-that checkerboard pattern; lobster is presented three ways, as a delicate chunk of meat, as a dumpling, and awash in a bisque. Fork-perfect halibut is flanked by transparent tubes of gelled tomato water, each containing a cherry tomato. Go ahead and giggle—it’s allowed. There are the requisite foams and powders, but L2O proves itself by delivering on the fundamentals as well as the finesse: the bread service, for example, is a selection of six, all spectacular, with house-made butter. And for the price of admission you can take a postprandial stroll through the kitchen and get a sense of the hardware required for such a dining experience. A poor man’s substitute is Gras’ splendid blog (  Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted, 312-867-0110, L2O, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, 773-868-0002, —David Hammond

Pear slices topped with a jelly, celery in fried wonton skin, chocolate crisps on top of seared foie gras at L2OCredit: Lennard Yeong

&Our readers’ choice Alinea