As the cooling economy puts a chill on spending, restaurateurs have become even more creative at getting diners into their chairs. And that's great news for diners who can get a class, a lecture or even a movie and discussion as part of the meal.
These events can make for ideal bargain dates, as you pay one price for all and, more important, don't have to re-park your frigid car or get back on the bus or a cab for the next event.
We recently stopped in at La Madia for the kick-off of its winter cooking classes, where we learned how to make Neapolitan-style pizza then sat down to a lunch of salad, pizza and wine.
During the class, chef-proprietor Jonathan Fox showed us how to make pizza dough (just water, flour, salt, yeast and olive oil) and pizza sauce (blended San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, salt and basil), the two staples of his pies.
After students stretched out the dough (not as easy as you might think) and topped them with sauce, cheese and more, we popped them in a 700-degree stone oven and watched the magic. Chatting and sipping wine with other foodies during the lunch offered a fun, communal experience that you don't always get dining out. It was also an easy way to sample the restaurant's specialties (pizza and wine) at minimum expense.
The year-old restaurant is one of the most active on this scene, offering a cooking class each month as well as a "chef's table dinner" where "students" watch as Fox prepares a six-course meal and pairs it with wines, explaining his techniques, produce and favorite purveyors along the way.
Considering you get lessons, food and wine for $30-$35, these meals seem like incredible bargains "I don't do them to make a lot of money," Fox says. "They're about marketing and food culture and a way to create an emotional connection with the guest.
"Some are really into wine and some are into cooking and by the end they are blown away."
Plus, Fox says, he creates a lot of new fans for the restaurant in the process. Before each class, he asks which "students" are in the restaurant for the first time, "and every time, at least 50 percent of them raise their hands."
Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba partner-proprietor Michael Cunningham agrees. He has been offering special meals and activities at his restaurant for several years, including a bi-monthly series called Artista Ba-Ba-Reeba that pairs Spanish food and wine with a lecture from an Art Institute scholar.
"These offer guests another reason to come to our restaurant," Cunningham says. "Some are fans of flamenco, some want to learn how to cook paella and some are the Art Institute members."
Carlos' restaurant in Highwood has long offered cooking classes but they also offer a twice-monthly movie night during which diners—in a private room—can enjoy a three-course meal followed by a film and then discussion over coffee and dessert.
This month, Mon Ami Gabi presented a "What's So Great About Monet" night as part of its French Masters Series, which, like Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba's, offers food, wine and a slide-show lecture every other month. Even if this brings back memories of napping through college art history class slide shows—but with booze—don't worry. This time, there's no test.
Here are some upcoming events. There are no current artist dinners scheduled at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba (cafebabareeba.com) and Mon Ami Gabi (monamigabi.com), but check their Web sites in the coming months.
JAN. 29: The Green Hour at Morton's Northbrook (699 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook; 847-205-5111): Guests will learn about the history and controversy surrounding absinthe while enjoying Pernod Absinthe cocktails, oysters Rockefeller (made with absinthe), mini prime cheeseburgers, crab stuffed mushroom caps and sliced tenderloin on crostini. 6 p.m. $45.
FEB. 1: Cooking with Kids at Le Titi de Paris (1015 W. Dundee Rd., Arlington Heights; 847-506-0222): A two-hour class on chocolate, truffles and dipping that finishes with a three-course lunch. 10 a.m. $45, for children 8 and older.
FEB. 3: La Madia Chef's Table (59 W. Grand Ave.; 312-329-0400): At this monthly dinner, "students" watch as chef-proprietor Jonathan Fox prepares their meal, matches it with wines and discusses his ingredients and farm sources. 7 p.m. $35.
FEB. 4: Mojito 101 class at Carnivale (702 W. Fulton St.; 312-850-5005). This hands-on class starts at 6:30 p.m. and is led by mixologist Victor Beheza, who will lecture on the history of this Cuban drink while teaching students how to make the classic mojito and a raspberry version as they enjoy small bites by chef Mark Mendez. $25. Bonus: The Angel Melendez Latin Jazz band will also play.
FEB. 7: Demonstration Cooking Class at Le Titi de Paris (1015 W. Dundee Rd., Arlington Heights; 847-506-0222): A demonstration class on how to cook a three-course romantic dinner. 10 a.m.; $60.
FEB. 8: Appetizer cooking class and bead bracelet making demonstration at Red Light (820 W. Randolph St.; 312-733-8880; www.redlight-chicago.com). Chef Jackie Chen will teach a hands-on appetizers class followed by bead bracelet instruction by Ian Cahr. Appetizers and wine will follow at this lunch that will benefit Friends of Animal Care and Control. Starts at 11:30 a.m., $35.
FEB. 10: Pizza Class at Frasca Pizzeria ( 3358 N. Paulina St.; 773-248-5222, frascapizzeria.com) A pizza-making class with pizza samplings and wine pairings. 7 p.m. $20.
FEB. 10: Monthly Beer School at Duke's Ale House and Kitchen (110 N. Main St., Crystal Lake; 815-356-9980, thedukeabides.com): Students learn the ins and outs of beer during this course that will be accompanied by small bites that have been specially paired with 3-ounce samples of beers featured in the class. 7 p.m. $20.
FEB. 11: Stock making class at Vie (4471 Lawn Ave., Western Springs; 708-246-2082, vierestaurant.com): Learn how to make classic stock from sous chef Nathan Sears. Class ends in lunch. 10 a.m. $80.
FEB. 21: Paella Cooking Class at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba (2024 N. Halsted St.; 773-935-5000; cafebabareeba.com): Lessons on how to cook the perfect paella followed by a lunch with wines. 10 a.m. $40.
MARCH 13: Carlos and Debbie's Dinner Film Club at Carlos' Restaurant (429 Temple Ave., Highland Park; 847-432-0770, carlosanddebbiesdinnerfilmclub.com): Eat a set three-course dinner, see a film and discuss it over dessert at these Friday dinner screenings that usually happen on the second and third Friday of the month. This one features Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and starts at 6 p.m. $60 before tax, beverage and gratuity.