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Sometimes chance makes the connection that helps you make sense out of something. I was thinking about Next's addition of a private dining room, the first increase in capacity at Chicago's hottest-ticket restaurant. Private dining rooms are common enough that they have an acronym everyone in the biz knows ("PDR," not to be confused with PBR), and though some—like Sixteen's, with its glassed-in Trump Tower view—are impressive, often they're kind of bland compared with the snazzier atmosphere of the busy restaurant around them.
Not surprisingly, Next felt the urge to show up every PDR in town, and theirs—poker-facedly named the Room at Next—is the latest and most elaborate expression of ideas Grant Achatz has been kicking around for a while about synesthesia—in this case, the blending of taste with the other senses involved in our experience of food. The showpiece of the ten-seat room is a cascading colored-LED sculpture arching over the table, like the Hollywood Bowl crossed with one of those car stereos that glows different colors with the beat, under which you will dine on a ten-course menu served nowhere else by new Aviary chef Andrew Brochu, plus cocktail pairings by Aviary mixologist Charles Joly, your own dedicated servers, and a private washroom. It instantly makes other PDRs look punk.
The price? A mere $4,430 for the night. With service and tax, it approaches $600 per person, almost certainly making it the most expensive dinner (not counting rare-wine dinners where the sky is truly the limit) regularly offered in Chicago. (And you can add on the Office for only $1,000 more!) I was just wondering who the audience for this might be when I saw a link for the trailer for the new Martin Scorsese film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
"Twenty-six thousand dollars for one dinner!" shouts Rob Reiner (who is somehow Leonardo DiCaprio's father in the movie) in outrage. But as DiCaprio had just observed, "I was making so much money I didn't know what to do with it." Of course, what you do with it, at that point, is consume as conspicuously as possible. Wine has traditionally been the place where consumption showed off the most—the story of the investment bankers who blow $200,000 in one night guzzling 1945 Mouton Rothschild is a journalistic perennial.
Next to that, whatever steaks and oysters the bankers knocked back were relative bargains. As expensive as even Alinea is—in the range of $1,000 for two—it's not really that much money. If most of middle-class Chicago can afford a new flat screen from Costco or tickets to Orlando, dinner at Alinea is within their range too. Maybe not within their idea of fun, but within their spending range.
Which is a bummer for dining as it becomes a leading cultural obsession—there just aren't enough ways to really show off in front of your colleagues. You went to Alinea? Yeah, Joe's a great guy, isn't he? You went to Next? My favorite is still Paris 1906.
The reason wine is able to play this game so much better than dining is that it has what a working restaurant can't really have: genuine scarcity. The most valuable wines in the world are the ones like Romanée-Conti, where the plot of land the entire appellation is on is about the size of a Walgreens and it takes a zillion pea-size grapes to squeeze out a bottle.
Another upcoming event demonstrates the economics at work. René Redzepi, chef of Noma, the Copenhagen foraged-twigs-and-lichen restaurant that a couple of years ago shot to the status of best restaurant in the world, will be at Balena on November 17, promoting his new book, A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots. (The book is more arty artifact than book proper; there's a small cookbook, a journal of Redzepi's thoughts on food, and a little pocket book of snapshots from Noma.) Redzepi isn't cooking—Balena's staff will prepare some of his recipes—just talking. The price of all that, including a copy of the book: $135.
Considering that tickets for, say, Wicked are in the same range, that may seem a lot for the kind of book-tour appearance that a few years ago would have been free at your local Borders. To the contrary, though, I would say it's a bargain. Spend thousands to fly to Copenhagen and dine at Noma and you might find that Redzepi was in Chicago at the time. But for a mere $135, which is $75 minus the retail price of the book, you are in the room with the mind of Rene Redzepi. A distinctly limited number of foodies will have been there and had that experience and be able to say, "I remember what Rene Redzepi said . . ." Given the hipness of food right now, who knows what the price of such experiences and the attendant one-upsmanship will be next year?