by Nilsa on December 10, 2013

Friday was my birthday. Some people might say it was a big birthday, since it was one of those that ended in a five or zero. Forty, to be exact. I’m not sure I can describe what forty feels like, because I think it’s a bit different for everyone. At forty, I am married, have a three-year old son, a seven-year old dog, own a condo, run for exercise and work full-time. At forty, my mom had a 14-year-old and 12-year-old. At forty, I have friends who are single, married, divorced. With kids and without. Planning for more and done long ago. Renting and owning their homes. Working full-time, looking for a job and enjoying the stay-at-home status. Laden with debt and planning for early retirement. Running ultra marathons and fighting cancer. Forty. It’s really just a number where we get to fill in the details.

But, Sweets made sure I ushered in forty with a bang. He took me to Grace, a restaurant that was ranked #1 newcomer by Chicago Magazine and in the Top 50 new restaurants by Bon Appetite Magazine, and earned two Michelin stars last month. The chef? Curtis Duffy worked under the legendary (and recently deceased) Charlie Trotter and helped Grant Achatz open his well-received Alinea (both in Chicago). He’s received honors by the James Beard Foundation. All of this is to say that Grace is no laughing matter – it’s serious food.

The menu is fixed – diners choose a flora option (heavier on the vegetation) or fauna option (heavier on the meats and fishes). Diners choose whether they want the accompanying wine flight. And can opt to add on the truffle serving (for a mere $100 extra per person, ouch!). While waitstaff waste no time whisking away empty plates (it’s a multi-course meal – on our visit, the menu was 9 courses), the meal still takes many unrushed hours to finish. At the end of the meal, diners are provided the opportunity to tour the kitchen.

This kind of meal is very much out of Sweets and my comfort zone. We NEVER spend that much money on any meal, not even close; so, we really have no benchmark on which to compare this meal. When you’re at restaurants like this, there is a certain air of decorum (for lack of a better word). Waitstaff are professional; some might say stuffy. No request is too small or too outrageous. And, when there are at least 4-6 people servicing your table throughout the meal, you are constantly under the watchful eye of someone, if not many people during your meal.

Sweets and I are far too laid back to fit into that space. But, we decided to embrace it, while still being ourselves. We joked with our waiter and sommelier and even cracked a few smiles from them. We asked questions about the food and experience that most certainly exposed how much we have yet to learn about food and the restaurant scene in Chicago. We kicked back and enjoyed our three plus hours in the space, knowing a night like that only comes around once. At the end of the evening, I felt full – of life, of food, of wine, of love. It was an amazing evening.

Though, in hindsight, it brings up an interesting debate, one that my father raised to me many years ago. At what point is a meal not worth the money? Even the best food in the world has a ceiling to its worth. My father once argued that after a certain price point, the food is no longer worth the money. I certainly agree, though I don’t know the exact price point that would best answer that question. Sweets and I did agree that a meal like this has to be the highlight of the evening. You have to be willing to let it drive the flow of the meal. You have to stop to listen to descriptions of the courses. You have to take in the beauty, the smells and, of course, the taste. To do so in a group does a disservice to your meal. Either, you’re too engaged with your friends to pay close enough attention to the details of the meal. Or, your social evening is broken up countless times when each course is served. I was thankful it was just Sweets and me experiencing this meal together.

So, to sum it up, I’m forty. I celebrated with the love of my life, experiencing one of the great meals of my life. I’m a lucky lady to be hitting my mid-life in such style.


The face of forty.

How have you celebrated the big milestones in your life? Would you rather celebrate a big birthday with lots of friends or in the company of one or a couple loved ones? How much is too much to spend on a meal? What’s the most memorable meal you’ve had?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly December 10, 2013

I’m glad you had such a wonderful birthday! I love your description of the restaurant- I can picture it in my mind ha ha. I don’t know that I’ve ever been somewhere THAT fancy, but I definitely know the difference between a neighborhood place and a bit more stuffy atmosphere. I find sometimes they like us more at the stuffy places because we just refuse to be all that stuffy ha ha.

My next birthday will also be a big one ending in a 0 :) If all goes to plan, I’ll have a husband and a 3-4 month old baby (depending on when he decides to come). I’ll most likely have gone back to work the week or two before and be trying a new role of full time working mom. SO, that being said- the idea of grand plans exhausts me just thinking of them. I’m hoping to head down the Cape- possibly with a good babysitter (aka my mom and dad) or possibly just with my little family and just relax and enjoy time with them. I hope wine will be involved ha ha, but that might just be because I really miss wine!


lisacng December 10, 2013

Happy birthday beautiful! I would have liked a bigger 30 celebration but it was enough celebrating with just my family. But we’re definitely gonna make our 40ths a big deal. We’ve had 2 expensive meals. One when we got engaged and another for our anniversary. If the food is good and I’m full at the end, then it’s worth it for me. I hate hearing about people who spend hundreds on a meal and walk away hungry. Happy 40th! To a great year ahead!


nora December 10, 2013

That dinner sounds divine! Like you and Sweets, I am sometimes out of my comfort zone at super swanky restaurants like that. I love the experience but it’s so different from what I usually do that I can be all awkward about it :)
I spent 30 pretty low-key this year; with Knight and my parents. I thought about a party but the idea of planning it wasn’t fun so I skipped that aspect of it. And I’m totally ok with it!


Megan December 10, 2013

WOW Nilsa! That sounds amazing! I hate to admit that Tom and I are just happy if we get to go to a meal and act like grownups these days nonetheless maybe at 40 I’ll make sure we take on an experience like this. I’ve read so much about Charlie Trotter and I’m always amazed by top chefs and restaurants. You look beautiful no matter what age you are live it up girl!


kapgar December 10, 2013

I’ve already told Katie that when 4-0 strikes next year, I want it be just her, Nathan, and me. No one else.

Happy birthday, again!


Alli December 10, 2013

Unsurprisingly, I’m dying to know what you ate there! My mom and I were just discussing this a few days ago; when you’re paying a hefty price at a restaurant it’s not enough to just have great food. I’m paying for the experience; I want delicious food and great service and ambiance.

For my birthday this Sunday Chris is taking me here: (not a shameless plug for my blog, it’s just too much to explain in the comment section my history with Telepan).

I’m so glad that you had such a lovely birthday. Here’s to 40+ more!


Accidentally Me December 10, 2013

Happy Birthday:-)

“Worth” is a totally subjective word. It’s worth it if you feel like you got something fair in exchange for your money…and only you can make that judgement. It is clearly more than just the food, and it may be worth it this week but not again next week, but as long as you feel like you got an experience that was a fair exchange for your money, then it was worth it!

And really, what is a fair price to make you feel special on your 40th birthday:-)? It’s a lot!


Mel Heth December 10, 2013

I totally want the play-by-play of the entire meal now so I can live vicariously through you. I love that kind of stuff. But like you, I don’t know what the cut-off point is. I think the most expensive meal we’ve had was at Spago in Hollywood. It was ridiculously good. But maybe as good as a meal half its price? I don’t know… I’m better with weighing wine quality and costs than food… Though that was a memorable meal, the ones that stand out most for me are still our two trips to Bottega (Michael Chiarello’s restaurant) in Napa. Ridiculously delicious. And he was there cooking once, which was fun to see.

We’ve been loosely planning Mr. W’s 40th birthday which will likely just include the two of us and a whole lot of beautiful scenery. I have a feeling I’ll want some sort of silly disco or 80s party for my 40th. And maybe a fancy dinner, too. ;)


Lisa of Lisa's Yarns December 10, 2013

I am glad that you had a very special birthday celebration!! You definitely deserved a special night out with Sweets. I haven’t had many extravagant meal. I think the nicest dinner I have had was at Colocchio & Sons in NYC when I visited Alli last summer. I have a hard time spending a lot on a meal out because I have my gluten intolerance which usually limits my options… But I think its great to treat yourself occasionally. It was funny because last year on my birthday a lot of people asked if Phil was going to take me somewhere special but the place we went is sort of a barbecue place that is obviously very casual but I picked it because it has a fun atmosphere and nearly everything is gluten free. But some were surprised when they heard that was what I chose. But it was not a major milestone bday. I may have picked differently if it was. :)

My last landmark birthday was my 30th. I can’t remover what I did on the actual day but I celebrated around that time with a French themed birthday party which was so much fun. My ideal way to celebrate my birthday is with an in home gathering with friends, good food, and games.

I hope the decade ahead of you is a fabulous one!!


Zi @ December 11, 2013

Happy birthday! Sounds like a great time celebrating! I got to have a nice meal with hubby when I turned 30 but nothing quite as fancy as yours. I like to celebrate with family and maybe some close friends, nothing too big.


Angie Mizzell December 11, 2013

That face of 40 is beautiful! I loved so many things about this post: first the awareness of all the different places in life one can be at 40, and really, doesn’t that take some pressure off of it? Our lives will write themselves, the story will unfold the way it will. It’s really different than how it used to be.

And I’ve had the same thoughts about a meal, wondering when the price overshadows or puts too much pressure on the experience (which is probably the opposite of what the whole affair is supposed to be about, luxury, not pressure). We’ve had some amazing meals in Charleston for a couple hundreds dollars, but that’s probably my limit. There are some restaurants that are even more than that, but I’m not sure it feels worth the expense to me.

I will tell you that I’ve been to a couple of corporate type dinners with Shawn (years ago) that someone ELSE was paying for, and those were awesome. :)


San December 11, 2013

You’re beautiful inside and out and I am glad you celebrated this milestone in style. Jon and I definitely love food and are willing to spend a bit more than the average person on something delicious, but I totally agree… there is a ceiling to how much is too much. If it’s a special occasions, I like to spend a bit more, but I get uncomfortable too if I feel “out of place” in the setting.


Marie December 12, 2013

Yeah you still don’t look 40. I’d give you 30-35. But not more!

So glad you had such a wonderful day! Here’s to many, many more happy birthdays friend :)


Christina Quirin December 12, 2013

Happy Birthday. It sounds like it was an experience for you at Grace but that is what makes life pop, all the unexpected experiences. May you usher in your 40s wiht fun, family and grace.


Mommyproof December 13, 2013

I think you’re so right that a dinner like that has to be an EVENT — everything about it is noticed, observed, remembered, chronicled later on. Happy birthday and so glad you had such a fantastic celebration. xox


Sandra December 20, 2013

I’m so happy that you got to experience this for a milestone birthday! Whether you are fit for this type of dining or not, it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Once upon a time, pre-kids, we experienced this a few times. And you’re right–you just soak it all in. Let your senses take the ride. I hope you thought the food was good! (DH is still hung up on the fact that we had to cancel an Alinea reservation because I was on bedrest for IVF years ago. Now our chances of actually getting a reservation is almost next to nil.) Welcome to the 40s Club!


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