Lucky Strike: Pinstripes
Pinstripes may not bowl a perfect game, but the modern American dining experience may be the vanguard of the restaurant of the future.
The Pinstripes experience actually begins outside the restaurant itself, and even then before you realize it. Stepping inside the place is much like walking into a large hotel lobby or Las Vegas casino. To the right, a winding staircase ascends toward the second floor beneath a raftered, three story roof, and to the left, dual bocce ball courts extend into distance. In the background are the faint sounds of bowling.
The experience almost overwhelms, and one instantly gets the sense that what looked from the outside to be merely a big restaurant is actually an outsized "entertainment and dining experience," as American as theme parks or malls, and incorporating a bit of both.
At 45,000 square feet, the restaurant offers patrons room to spread out. One never feels alone inside Pinstripes, however: with 150 employees and party rooms that can accommodate 600 people at once, the restaurant is often technically more populated than most American villages. Created by a team out of Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group and veterans of the corporate arm of the Cheesecake Factory, the size and scope of the place represents a massive amount of professional effort. Two years in the making, the restaurant—actually a combination bowling alley, bocce ball court, upscale Italian kitchen, catered event venue, art gallery and musical performance space—celebrates its third full year of operation this October.
It's tempting to imagine Pinstripes as a mass-marketed, volume-driven business with a menu built around speed and quantity. It's actually only half true: the service is quick and the portions are generous, but despite the Costco like proportions of the architecture, a great deal of care goes into each individual dish. The result is a menu that's more akin to what one would expect in a small and charming bistro.
Our table couldn't resist testing the kitchen with what seemed to be an unusual dish, the grilled shrimp and green pea hummus ($10). The chefs here had no problem rising to the occasion, producing four perfectly cooked shrimp atop a balsamic sauce with a hint of rosemary. The green pea hummus was delicious—cool and lemony—and once the crackers that had come with the dish were gone, we used the complimentary garlic flat bread to claim fat scoops of the stuff, completely ignoring the delicious green pesto and olive oil dip.
What we felt next became a recurring theme throughout the night. Among the better problems one can have, the food, though delicious, was intensely rich. The chefs here knew how to use a surplus of cream and butter to make a dish taste amazing, but this kitchen was turning the flavor up to eleven on dishes that were already nines.
We had the same issue with the otherwise delicious chicken marsala, $12. Every element taken together should have added up to a great dish: the penne was al dente, the chicken was tasty and moist and the arugula was surprisingly fresh for this time of year. Even the marsala was light, but the cream sauce derailed efforts to get even halfway through the dish.
Salvation eventually came, as it sometimes does, in the form of a pizza. Or in this case, a flatbread. This rectangular, truffled cheese pizza, $11, came served on a long wooden board with a handle. Beyond the fun presentation, the flatbread sported a crispy cracker crust with a light amount of asiago cheese and truffle oil. This simple entree turned out to be the most balanced of the night.
Primed for dessert and unable to decide between the caramelized cheesecake, $6, and the pear and apple bread pudding, $7, we asked our server for a recommendation and she brought us the latter. Served with a sprig of mint and puff of whipped cream, the pudding itself was amazing, especially when using it to soak up the fresh, locally served fruits that went into the accompanying syrups.
The service here is knowledgeable, professional and slightly stuffy, but the tone the staff sets is one of the elements preventing the restaurant from turning into a Chuck E. Cheese's with a walk-in wine cellar. Far from it, this ambitious Northbrook restaurant tries to be a bit of everything—fine dining experience, family game night destination, local arts supporter, wedding venue—and actually succeeds.
With plans to expand elsewhere in the Midwest, Pinstripes' vision of a colossal, communal entertainment and dining experience may well be the future of the suburban night out.