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High on a hill overlooking Fullerton, the dusk sky is tinged pink and blue when two energetic lads interrupt the serene scene outside our restaurant window. Dressed in dark suits, they roughhouse across the Summit House lawn, soon followed by the bride, groom, and photographer hoping to capture the cloud-streaked twilight before it fades into the city lights below.
As the wedding party disappears, the once-empty dining room steadily fills with large and small groups of seasoned citizens eagerly ordering cocktails and perusing the menu. We’re all here for the same thing: old-line fare with special-occasion flair. The happy mood is anticipatory—who doesn’t love a chunky crab cake, succulent slab of prime rib, and a glass of merlot? Add polished service and an old British country inn setting and it’s clear why this ersatz Tudor manor still packs them in after two decades.
Summit House is arguably North County’s default choice for holiday and special-event feasting. Anniversary dinners alone supply a steady stream of demand—the inevitable result of hosting several weddings each month for decades. So it’s hardly surprising that our server asks what we’re celebrating. “Friday night” is the best we can offer. A basket of warm breads soon arrives, along with multiple butter dishes—a thoughtful touch that eliminates awkward reaching and passing across a table lavishly set with stemware, silverware, and flowers.
Appetizers are the usual suspects for this genre of old-school continental cuisine. Firm, fat Mexican white prawns expertly poached to a sweet curl make an appealing shrimp cocktail, accented by a rousing chili sauce. Aromatic vapors escape when the melted roof of Gruyère yields to brawny onion soup teeming with simmered onions, some strands darkly caramelized. Escargot should be more tender, but their bubbling chambers of parsley-green garlic-butter, spiked with Pernod and brandy, beg to be dunked with pieces of soft bread. Hawaiian ahi, seared rare, may be the most modern of the starter choices—the ample portion of high-quality sashimi pairs well with crisp slaw tossed in miso vinaigrette.
If you order a salad at dinner, beware—they’re generous and share-worthy. I say skip the acceptable Caesar, and the ubiquitous baby greens with caramelized walnuts and blue cheese. Go for the iceberg wedge with three (!) crispy half-heads of gem lettuce, strewn with lots of smoky bacon chunks and Point Reyes blue cheese nuggets, or try the interesting house salad of tender Bibb lettuce, pancetta, Gruyère, and toasted pecans tossed in black mustard seed vinaigrette.
Prime rib is the biggest jewel in the Summit House crown, and it comes with the royal Anglo trimmings we expect: rich creamed corn, fluffy creamed spinach, and a softball-size popover of Yorkshire pudding. Once the beef arrives, the server ladles hot jus over any items you specify. Hand-carved to order, a choice of three cuts—big, bigger, and biggest—plays to every appetite. The flavorful meat is as good as any prime rib around, consistently hitting that intersection of tender and chewy. Next time, if I can find a taker, I’m splitting that extra-thick portion served on the bone.
Years back, few folks even knew what John Dory was, but the Summit House never surrendered, and today it’s a signature dish. The delicate, white-fleshed fish appeals to those who disdain strong-tasting seafood. But this pan-seared filet is slightly overcooked, and the dry, crunchy breading amplifies the fact. The accompanying creamy mashed potatoes and lemony butter sauce try, but fail, to save the day. The sautéed line-caught king salmon is bright-pink and succulent, with a brown sugar-and-citrus sauce that teeters on the edge of cloying. But it’s nicely paired with lightly sizzled fresh tatsoi (mustard-flavored greens)—a zesty change from the so-commonplace spinach.
House-made desserts aren’t exciting. There’s a dark-chocolate torte layered with a nice sponge cake, a ho-hum English trifle, and a decent crème brûlée. Worthiest of all are the expert profiteroles, these with fresh pastry cream in their firm, eggy pastry shells, lavishly gilded with warm Belgian chocolate sauce.
Too bad the wine list isn’t broader and more ambitious. It’s heavy with standard California players, light on bargains, and even lighter on intrigue and imports. Corkage is $20 and well worth it to guarantee a pleasurable wine at a fair price.
On occasional visits, I forgo the dressy cheer of the dining rooms and duck into the comfy tavern. It’s a gem of a hideaway. Looming a half-floor above the main proceedings, it’s a welcoming retreat with sizeable bar, glowing fireplace, cushy banquette seats, and at night, a sociable player at the grand piano. The tavern has its own staff and likable menu of all-day items—prime rib sliders, a substantial cheese plate, and lovely butter lettuce salad with wood-grilled shrimp and fresh mangoes.
It’s no mystery why Summit House still packs them in for holiday fêtes and special feasts—a hilltop view, handsome surroundings, and smooth hospitality add sparkle to celebrations. The menu may not offer any surprises, but then, enduring dining traditions are hardly built on shock-and-awe moments.
Onion soup, prawn cocktail, ahi sashimi, house salad, wedge salad, prime rib and trimmings. At lunch or in the tavern: prime rib sliders, crab cake sliders, jumbo shrimp salad.
Window seats for best view, booths for comfort.
Lunch, $7 to $23; dinner, $8 to $44; tavern, $8 to $19 ($5 to $14 at happy hour).
Drinks, Salmon Creek wines, and the entire bar menu are deeply discounted during happy hour, Monday through Friday, 4 to 6:30 p.m. On Sundays, happy hour starts at 4 and lasts all night.
On Wednesday, the complete prime rib dinner (smallest cut) is $20 (reduced from $28).
MAKE IT AT HOME
Visit the restaurant’s website for its legendary creamed-corn recipe. Calorie count not included.
2000 E. Bastanchury Road
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.