Chicago Date Night: Sepia

The Soho House Chicago team used their most recent ‘date night’ to visit Michelin-starred Sepia – but found that it wasn’t for them

Alexis Rorabaugh, head chef

James and I actually went for a date lunch this time, to Sepia, which is a neighbourhood spot that’s been going a while. We’d both heard of it, and know some guys who’d worked there, years ago. The team recently opened a new place so we thought we’d try this one first.

In terms of atmosphere, Sepia felt a little dated. Tacky chandeliers, too much light, like we were back in 1995. The service took longer than we’re used to – we were there an hour and five minutes, which isn’t mega, but is a bit too long for lunch.

Also, the cooking was kind of amateur for the price they’re charging. Certain things needed more caramelisation; basic stuff. We started with squid and chorizo salad with a lot of Thai herbs. It was OK to begin with, but quickly got flabby and boring. Then rabbit pappardelle pasta; a small portion for the price. After that a chicken sausage sandwich that was spicy, but a bit spongy.

But I loved the peanut butter mousse dessert with salted caramel, even if the presentation was a bit fouffy for my liking. I don’t normally go for dessert, but date nights are a treat.

It’s nice to get out and see what other people are doing, and refreshing to go back to work confident that we’re doing a great job. James and I opened the House together, and have known each other in lots of different roles, but even so on date nights we talk about things that aren’t related to work – travel, family, home – which definitely makes for a friendlier work day.

James Barnett, general manager

The temptation, on date nights, is to pick a restaurant that’s brand new, hip, or on trend. Sepia has been established quite a few years now, and kept its Michelin star, so this time we thought it might be interesting to go there and find out why.

Beforehand we went for a nice walk around the area. Normally Alexis and I only see each other at the House, so it was great to discover that she has such an awesome sense of style when she’s not in her chef clothes. We’d both just moved house so we had a chat about that; the sun was shining. It was lovely.

My first impression of Sepia was it’s a very masculine place. Muted tones, a bit gaudy with the chandelier. Lots of guys in suits having lunch meetings over burgers. They obviously do a fine burger; nobody else in there was doing the three-course thing like Alexis and me.

I guess if you have a great product that people go for, you do a good trade. Like when you see bolognese on a menu – it might feel dated for those of us who work in hospitality, but if people want it then that’s one way to stay in business.

Overall, I’d say Sepia just felt unloved. It needed energy, warmth. The chairs were scuffed, the tablecloths horrible. When I started out I used to look up to Michelin-starred places as a way to strive to be the best. Over the years I’ve realised that’s not quite right. At Soho House we’re more flexible – not as in we reduce standards, but as in we treat each table, each guest as being different. There are fewer rules, less of a line between us and them. The relationship is much less stuffy, and that’s how I prefer things.

Interviews by Andy Hill

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