It’s hard not to judge a restaurant by its location. If Oakfire had been built in Elkhorn with a view of the Burger King, rather than in its current, splendid, lakeside location, would the pizza taste the same? Along those lines, can we judge a restaurant that inhabits a space known for being a restaurant killer in the same way that we might judge a restaurant housed within a non-infamous building? These are the things I was wondering when I puttered up to the Boat House in Lake Geneva.
I called ahead to see if there was boat parking available, and sure enough, there was. When I pulled up to the piers, two kids helped usher the boat into an open slip. The problem with this pier set up is that there doesn’t appear to be many mooring spaces for diners, which could be problematic if you, like me, left your pier in your boat in hopes of eating pizza by the lake. Still, the sun was shining, the lake was calm, and the patio beckoned.
But about that restaurant space, about the ghosts of restaurants past. This is the lakeside building to the South of Big Foot Beach, to the Northeast of the Geneva Inn. Next door, bulldozers have recently torn up what was left of a lakeside forest to make way for a clubhouse- a clubhouse that I argued shouldn’t have been approved, but we live in a community that has greedily bought the lie that progress is good. The restaurant here is a few years old, and that’s a long time for a restaurant in this building. Prior iterations have all failed. But why? It’s hard to say. Those who are quick to blame the location as being out of the way and too far from town obviously haven’t watched the success of far-away icons like the Duck Inn. It’s not the location that has doomed the earlier restaurants, it’s the restaurants themselves that have doomed the restaurants. Bad food is bad food, no matter the lakeside patio.
When I was hopping from pizza place to pizza place last winter, I was told several times to try the Boat House. I was told the pizza was good, maybe great. A favorite, for some. I was also told that the live music on the patio is often too loud, and that it can be an impediment to table-side conversation. When my son and I walked across the street and to the hostess table, the music was indeed loud. I asked to be seated on the patio as far from the live music as possible. It was the right decision.
The waitress was over with waters and menus, as we listened to the musician croon and the waves lap. It was a pleasant scene, and I was glad to be part of it. We didn’t waste any time with the menus, ordering a 14″ pizza with jalapeño and sausage (eschewing my typical green pepper/mushroom concoction, and leaving that in the past, with the winter). As this pizza was just 14″ and we were two strapping men, we added an order of calamari. I have a theory that supposes you can tell the quality of a restaurant by ordering their fried calamari. If the squid is good, odds are the restaurant will be as well. We ordered and waited. The man plucked out Take It Easy, which I pointed out to my son was made famous by the Eagles but actually written, mostly, by Jackson Browne. He didn’t care.
The calamari was out first. It was darker than typical, with large rings and whole bodies. It was tender, but the flour coating tasted a touch raw to me. I didn’t love it, but it wasn’t bad. The theory about calamari was being tested, since there was no clear opinion on this dish. The pizza followed shortly, taking 18 minutes from when we first made the order, which is in line with my expectations. The pizza was noticeably smaller than the usual 16″ pie. It was cut tavern style. Some restaurants cut small and some large squares, this was of the large variety. The jalapeño was obviously cut and placed on the pizza raw before cooking, which is a method I don’t like. The sausage dotted the surface with some consistency but it lacked an impressive quantity. The pizza, with those caveats, looked good.
And it was good. The crust was exceptionally thin, and well crisped. It wasn’t chewy, nor was it hard to eat (like some of the thin crust pizzas have been). It was just thin and crispy, and I liked it quite a bit. The pizza passed the flop test with ease, and in a rare feat, the test was passed on the first slice and on the very last. A nice surprise, indeed. But the defining characteristic on this pizza was the sauce. It wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t spicy, but there was a ton of it. JoJo’s should visit the Boat House to see how a ladle of sauce looks. This was a saucy pizza, to be sure. The cheese was normal, the sausage typical. In a blink, the pizza was gone and my son and I were left to ponder the score.
Was it as good as the best in this series? No. I think it was better than the Kringle Company and not as good as Mama Cimino’s. I liked the crust, but it’s a frozen crust, so we can’t go about pretending this is some fine pizza establishment like Larducci’s. This is just a restaurant/bar on the lake, in a building that is no stranger to restaurants. And on this night, with the sun fading and the musician singing, the pizza was quite good. Check out the Boat House next time you’re lakeside, and let me know what you think.
The Boat House Bar and Grill
N2062 South Lake Shore Drive, Lake Geneva
$19 for a 14″ pizza with sausage and jalapeño