I was just in Chicago for a conference, and, having always meant to go to a highly touted experimental restaurant in the Chicago style, made a reservation — sorry, I mean “got tickets” — for EL Ideas.
To get this out of the way first — yes, the food was good. Very, very good. But I don’t actually want to talk about the food! Lots of restaurants have good food. What’s really interesting about EL Ideas is the way it merges the idea of “restaurant” with the idea of “theater.”
There’s no menu — each of the 24 diners eats the same thing at the same time, so that, as in a play, everyone in the room is having the same experience. Before the meal begins, the chef/impresario/director/producer pops out from the kitchen to tell you that this isn’t going to be the usual stuffy expensive restaurant deal — he wants you to wander into the kitchen and ask what’s going on, he wants you to really get into it. He warns that you should summon an Uber car rather than trying to walk home through the somewhat desolate neighborhood because if you did the latter “you might die.” In other words: we are the ones hip enough to be in this neighborhood, to feel a little frisson of danger, though nothing you can’t dispel with an app! (In fact, I cannot say the crowd looked notably hip — my dinner companions were younger than me, but most other people looked old and rich, one more thing EL Ideas has in common with the theater.)
Before each dish is presented, the chef gives a little introduction, during which you are supposed to be quiet — if you talk while the he’s talking, the chef warns, you might get thrown out. Just like the theater.
You don’t exactly get a reservation here; you purchase the meal in advance, as with a ticket to a show.
And at the end everyone claps!
When I was younger, I used to go to plays a lot. OK, not a lot. But I probably saw three to five plays a year, and even then I think most people I knew weren’t going. Now I never go to plays; for all I know, I may never see a play again.
But EL Ideas makes me think that there are things people want from plays, and these are things that people who never go to plays sense, consciously or not, that they still want, and so something wonderful happens — the theater, seemingly made extinct by other, nimbler forms of entertainment, spores out into the atmosphere and embeds itself in another cultural host.
I had dinner at EL Ideas last night. The food was wonderful, but I thought for a while that your comparison with theater was somewhat exaggerated. That is, until they got to flash-freezing the ice cream with liquid nitrogen and half the diners/audience ran to the kitchen to watch.
Incidentally, it sounds like the crowd last night was younger/hipper than when you were there. But with only 24 diners per night, two nights is still a pretty small sample.
The small size of the restaurant is actually relevant, too, now that I think of it — it means that, as with a short-run, small-theater play, EL Ideas is something that’s impossible for a large number of people to experience; not just because its expensive, but because of purposeful scarcity. Maybe somebody should write an essay about the work of cuisine in the age of mechanical food production.
[…] is the same thing as a classical music performance or a play from this point of view. Though see here for further thoughts on the relationship between high-end Chicago dining and the legitimate […]