Whether it’s a balmy August day or a frigid February one, Chicagoans gather at this Lincoln Park restaurant to experience summer year round. Summer House Santa Monica (1954 N Halsted, Lincoln Park) serves a California-inspired menu in a setting that will put you in a golden state of mind (…unless you are seated under the AC vents, in which case you will be transported to wintertime Chi).
Summer House’s pretty outdoor seating area is what originally caught my eye. The restaurant had no open tables when I first noticed it a few months ago, so I had to wait to check it out during a more recent visit to Chicago. Summer House is part of Lettuce Entertain You, a restaurant group based in Chicago that owns more than 40 restaurants in the area (DC readers: think Jose Andres, but on a much larger scale and with diverse options ranging from ramen shops to tiki bars).
I began my dining experience with the Malibu Cooler ($5.95), a “zero proof” mocktail that was nothing short of delicious and refreshing. The menu advertised it as “passionfruit and orange” so I was expecting some Tropicana OJ and passionfruit juice. Instead, I got a sparkling drink that used what I think was orange syrup, rather than pulpy juice. The passionfruit taste was subtle and the drink was garnished with an orange peel. It was so good that I had two, which really says something coming from someone who typically orders water with a lemon wedge.
My boyfriend, who had been to Summer House once before, recommended the Spicy Calamari ($13.95) from his previous visit. Although it looked delicious, the calamari was too fried and heavy. My boyfriend agreed that it was better the last time. The mayo-ey sauce was good, but also added to the heaviness. Rather than the traditional lemon, this dish was served with a lime, which added a much-needed refreshing twist.
After my initial survey of the eclectic menu (burgers, sushi, tacos, pasta and more), I wasn’t really sure what to order for my entree. I had been craving sushi, but the serving sizes made it too pricey to get enough sushi to constitute a meal.
I ended up going with the Wood-Grilled Mahi Mahi Tacos ($23.95), thinking that this swanky, Cali-style restaurant would beat any other fish taco experience I had had in the past. Much to my disappointment, these ended up being the most mediocre fish tacos I have ever had.
The first problem with the tacos was that they weren’t even tacos. I was expecting the tacos to come ready to eat, but instead I had to put them together myself. I was given one plate with mahi mahi, rice, beans, guacamole and a corn and tomato salsa, and another plate with four tortillas. If I had wanted to make my own tacos, I would have eaten at home for much less than $24.
After I had finally put together and sampled my first taco, I was very sadly disappointed that it didn’t even taste good. The fish was dry and the overall taco was bland and flavorless. Chipotle would have never disappointed me like this…
My boyfriend happens to be the best dining out partner there is, because he found my Mahi Mahi Tacos more appetizing than his Steak Frites. Is he crazy for having enjoyed the bland fish tacos? Maybe, but we switched entrees and were much happier with our new dishes.
I very rarely order steak at restaurants because I find the dish too heavy and on the boring side, but that night at Summer House it was just right. The traditionally French Steak Frites ($27.95) dish came with the standard fixings (steak and fries), as well as with a garnish of grilled onion and tomato and a glob of blue cheese.
The medium done steak was juicy and delicious, unlike the dry mahi mahi I had abandoned (I definitely got the better end of the switcheroo). The fries were excellent! They were fresh, crunchy and small, which was disastrous because before I knew it I had eaten most of the very generous portion.
Fortunately, the grilled tomatoes and onions added a nice respite from the heaviness of the dish, which made me wish they were more than just a garnish. Despite my aversion to the acrid taste of blue cheese, this particular blue cheese was pretty mild and bearable.
After packing the leftover steak in a doggy bag, I had room for dessert. I ordered the Roasted Peach and Blueberry Cobbler ($7.95) a la mode. The ice cream was absolutely delicious. It was particularly thick and creamy, reminding me more of custard than traditional ice cream. Unfortunately, the cobbler part was too crunchy to the point where it was painful to chew and I felt like I was eating sand. Thumbs down.
My boyfriend was more satisfied with his Root Beer Float ($6.95) than I was with my dessert. Satisfied is an understatement. He looked like he died and went to heaven after his first taste. If you like root beer floats, this is a great one to try.
While I was generally disappointed by the food, the ambiance of Summer House was great. The interior had an outdoorsy and, dare I say, summery vibe. The main dining hall has a glass ceiling that lets natural light in during the day. When night falls, the dining room is illuminated by lanterns and string lights.
I was a fan of the restaurant’s soundtrack, which featured five songs from Lorde, as well as tunes from Arcade Fire and Foster the People.
The restaurant seemed to be a hit among the soon-to-be-wed and soon-to-be-mothers, as there were at least two bachelorette parties and a handful of pregnant women dining with us that evening.
Summer House shares a lobby with another Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, Stella Barra Pizzeria. In this lobby between the two restaurants is a display case of baked goods that are available for purchase. Regret not ordering dessert? Grab a cookie or brownie to go and refresh yourself with a complimentary cup of infused water.
Although our waitress was attentive and accommodating when it came to food, she failed to rescue me from the arctic temperatures of the AC unit that was blasting above my head. Our waitress said there was nothing she could do about the temperature, which made my dining experience an uncomfortable one. Can anyone who has worked in a restaurant tell me if this was a legit claim or if she was just being lazy?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Go for the ambiance, stay away from the AC and ask your waiter for a recommendation so you’re not disappointed by the food.
(^Would’ve been a 5/5 had it not been for the AC incident)