Last Wednesday, the night Grant Achatz's Next opened on Fulton Market, a man who lives in the neighborhood came in as the last table was being served. He casually asked for dinner, said Nick Kokonas, Achatz's business partner, who found himself explaining the restaurant's policy to the man: With a few exceptions, you need to buy a ticket, purchased through the restaurant's website, to get a reservation. To be offered a ticket, you need to be on Next's email list. They began taking emails last spring.
As of April 1, that email queue had grown to 19,000. Only the first 3,000 emails received an offer. The man nodded. He was on this list. He was just hoping, you know, since he's here now and everything …
"So I said, 'Let's look at what number you are on the list.' I took him to the back, found the spreadsheet of emails. He was, like, No. 10,000. I just said, 'If I give you a table, is that fair to the 9,999 before you in line?'"
There are lines, at hot dog stands, at Lake Shore Drive exit ramps. Then there are reminders of purgatory.
Just a week into service at the hotly anticipated restaurant from the people behind Alinea, the virtual queue at Next is looking a bit closer to the latter — if purgatory served a lovely poached chicken with cucumber.
The restaurant's Facebook page alone tells a tale of sweaty yearning and dissatisfaction:
"What was going to be a fun experience is now a spectacle."
"After days of trying to no avail, I am finding relief in accepting that which I cannot change."
Hoping to avoid these groans of disenchantment, Kokonas withheld about 40 percent of total reservations through June, then began doling out the rest, at about 60 tables or so a day. "But the minute I unlock a table on the website, it's booked. Because people are out there hitting the refresh button all day long, I suppose."
Two walk-in tables a night were planned, but to discourage long lines, this has become a virtual walk-in. Every day or so, Kokonas plans to announce on the restaurant's Facebook page if a walk-in is available. If you can reply fast enough (and your email "is a bit creative, not just a robot reply"), you might land a table.
Which brings us to the other way people are landing tables — by buying reservations off scalpers on Craigslist, sometimes at face value, sometimes for much more. Chris Mangless, of Green Bay, Wis., recently sold a table for face value — a table for four, costing about $660. "But I was offered, like, $1,500 right after I sold them. I think the system is brilliant, but they definitely should have filled in the cracks first, because it feels out of control."
"Chicago Foodies are Even More Batsh-- than New York Foodies" was a recent headline in the Village Voice. There have been reports that tickets for Next (which cost $45 to $75 per person, on average) were selling online for upward of $3,000 for a table.
Kokonas is more than aware of this black market, and he warns on the restaurant's website of the potential illegality of selling Next tickets for profit. But privately he acknowledges it's a losing battle.
"I'm not happy about this," Kokonas said, sounding exhausted, "and I have come up with clever ways of stopping this black market. But I can't. I usually come up with equally clever ways around my own ideas."