Though the name conjures up tinkling teacups and Nancy Reagan types meeting for lunch, Society Cafe is a serious restaurant. It offers an ambitious menu in a gracious, civilized setting. A superb sound system played Bach, on the evening we were there, at just the right volume--low enough for conversation, loud enough to take up the slack when table talk flagged. Located in the south wing of the Chicago Historical Society, Society Cafe offers a two-tiered, semicircular space whose curved windows look out onto Clark Street and a flowered garden abutting Lincoln Park. When the weather permits, one can dine outdoors.
Inside, white walls, pillars, and tablecloths set off a two-story-high terra-cotta arch. It was designed by Burnham & Root in 1888 for the National Livestock Bank in the Union Stockyards, and graced the entranceway there until 1934. It was then moved to the Stockyard Inn, and later to the International Amphitheatre. The Chicago Historical Society acquired it in 1984. On the upper part of the arch, at about eye level in the upstairs dining area, are cows, sheep, horses, and a pig in deep relief. To tenderhearted diners, the animals may seem to be staring reproachfully: it could be a hell of a guilt trip for those digging into a New York cut or pork tenderloin. Below, on opposite sides of the archway, a cattle rancher and a cowboy gaze into the room benignly. Legend has it that rubbing the rancher's mustache (he's the one on the left) brings good luck.
Lunch runs to fairly ordinary soups, salads, and sandwiches. Prices are moderate: salads range from $5.95 for spinach and mushroom to $10.50 for a mixed seafood, pasta, and vegetable combination; sandwiches go from $2.75 for a hot dog with potato chips to $7.95 for roast beef with roasted red pepper and horseradish sauce. On Sundays there's an extensive, and more interesting, brunch menu. It includes the likes of smoked fish with lemon-chive creme fraiche ($5.95), a wild-mushroom-and-sausage omelette ($6.95), chicken hash with poached eggs and sherry sauce ($5.95), and angel-hair pasta with shrimp and scallops in tarragon white-wine sauce ($8.95). The usual libations--mimosas, Bloody Marys, screwdrivers--are available, as are fresh fruit and baskets of sweet rolls.
At dinner the menu really shines. Of the openers, we can vouch for a large crab-and-corn fritter--light, golden, and greaseless--that came with a pool of sweet yellow-pepper relish artfully embossed with thin strips of chive ($5.50). This is a true fritter, not a crab cake: the corn kernels remain whole, and the crabmeat retains its distinct flavor and texture. Saute of wild mushrooms with summer vegetables ($5.95) comes close to being the definitive version of this dish. A plate of fungi, primarily oyster and shiitake, in a tangy, smoky cream sauce is augmented by a smattering of carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash and accompanied by a thick square of perfect puff pastry. Roasted baby eggplant with garlic ($3.95), on the other hand, did not quite measure up. The eggplant had lingered on the flames a bit longer than the optimum; as a result, it was somewhat tough and bitter.
Roast chicken with veal sausage stuffing ($9.95), two succulent chicken legs whose skin formed a pouch for a mild-flavored, meaty forcemeat, was first-rate. It arrived flanked by a mound of still-firm zucchini and carrot sticks and a thinly sliced roasted potato. Grilled swordfish ($12.95), a large, thin slab of perfectly fresh steak, came to the table still pink in the center, as it should be, teased by a lively green-peppercorn sauce redolent of fresh rosemary. Three tiny grilled onions and a trio of roast potato halves completed the simple presentation. Medallions of sweetbreads ($11.95), arranged in a triangle and interspersed with blue-cheese-stuffed spinach ravioli, the whole resting on a coulis of tomato, were more of a visual than a gustatory success. The sweetbreads, split and stuffed with fresh basil, needed more moisture in the preparation; they tasted dry. Similarly the ravioli, though freshly made and a picture-perfect deep green, were tougher than they should have been. Caesar salad ($4.95), a generous serving of greens in a pleasant, zesty mayonnaise-parmesan dressing, offered no competition to the classic version. None of us could discern any coddled egg or anchovy, each a sine qua non of this dish.
Desserts featured fresh fruits, ice cream, and for those who cannot end a meal without chocolate, a chocolate pecan pie. By consensus, the favorite was a compote made from fresh peaches, sliced and lightly poached, then topped with silky-rich vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of sugary crumbles ($3.25). Hard on its heels was apple-raspberry summer pudding ($3.25), an unusually light yet chewy dark bread pudding studded with walnuts and raisins, served on a puddle of limpid raspberry coulis and crowned with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. The chocolate pecan pie ($2.95) was well made and not overly sweet. Those who favor traditional pecan pie might find the chocolate distracting, but chocoholics will surely like its smoothness and intensity. Excellent decaffeinated coffee and very good Kona regular ended the meal on a high note.
Only three reds and three whites grace the very limited wine list. Buena Vista Carneros Vineyard Merlot 1984 ($18.50) made a pleasant, fruity companion to all of the dishes, although it was a bit young and strident. A better bet might be Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon 1986 ($16), also available by the glass ($4), a more rounded, less insistent complement to the fare. Cheerful, pleasant service added to our general sense of well-being.
Society Cafe, 1601 N. Clark, is open 11 to 3 and 5 to 10 Monday through Saturday. Brunch on Sunday is from 9:30 to 3. Visa, MasterCard, and Diner's Club are accepted. For reservations, call 787-8858.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.