Waiting for a table at a restaurant isn’t usually much fun, but at Summer House Santa Monica, the wait is the best part. On a recent Friday night, a night so cold my date and I took a cab instead of taking the train and then walking 10 minutes, we headed into the Lincoln Park restaurant, which immediately whisks you away to summery Southern California.
A bakery case greets you as soon as you walk inside, and it’s filled with cookies, Rice Krispie treats, granola bars and other baked treats. To the left of the bakery case is Summer House, a bright, welcoming space, with greenery suspended from high ceilings, a countdown of how many days it is until summer on the wall, and a buzzing energy. To the right is Stella Barra, a sister pizzeria that’s dark and looks like a tacked-on sports bar. Both are Lettuce Entertain You spots operated by chef-partner Jeff Mahin, who helms Do-Rite Donuts and has two Stella Barra locations in California.
When the quoted time for a table was 45 minutes, we decided to head over to Stella Barra for a drink and wait it out. While Summer House was packed, we easily grabbed a pair of comfortable bar seats and ordered a round of drinks—a Negroni sbagliato, fizzy from prosecco, and the Heart of Another, a draft cocktail made with rum, lime, pineapple and maraschino—both perfectly fine, but not terribly exciting.
As the wait ticked upwards of 45 minutes, we checked on our table (they told us they were really busy and overwhelmed) and then things started to turn around. We hit the bakery case for an excellent chewy oatmeal cookie studded with dried apples. We reopened our tab and ordered the Sicilian Highball, made with Cynar, Averna, ginger beer and lemon—basically a deeper, bitter, more delicious Moscow Mule. Then the bartender appeared with an orphaned sausage pizza, and asked if we wanted it. With help from the friendly group next to us, we demolished the pizza, which turned out to be the best thing we ate all night (the cookie took second place). The sausage was loaded with fennel and the nicely salty crust was crispy and chewy. When our table was ready next door, after nearly an hour and a half wait, we both wished we’d just said no and ordered another pizza and round of Sicilian Highballs.
That’s because the beauty of Summer House is only skin deep. Sure, the space is stunning and unlike anywhere else in Chicago, and sure, the servers look really cool with their colorful checked shirts, but dish after dish is merely okay. A salad of market greens and herbs was barely dressed, while a Hamachi tartare with avocado and green apple was appealing texturally, but didn’t have any zip. Grilled salmon, served with roasted fennel and arugula pesto, was overcooked. The pasta, made in house, featured garganelli tossed with broccoli rabe and the same fennel sausage used on the pizza next door. It was well-executed, but I’d much rather eat that sausage on Stella Barra’s crust. For desserts, you can pluck something from the bakery case and have it topped with ice cream, but we loved the light-as-air pineapple sorbet.
The cocktail list is also less appealing than next door, and the Sonoma Coast, a pisco and pineapple concoction, proved to be one note and dull. But the wine list is solid and stocked with mostly California wines worth ordering, like the rich and fruity Frog’s Leap cabernet.
The Summer House menu includes one odd item—listed under the “stuff” section is a beach ball for $4.95. I envisioned some sort of insane regional California dish and got excited, but our server rolled her eyes.
“No, that’s actually a beach ball,” she said and pointed behind us. “They’re all sitting over there. I wish they’d take these off the menu.”
Summer House is trying to be fun and quirky, but the real fun is next door at Stella Barra.