LOLA in Delray Beach Is Entertaining, but the Menu's Also for Real
"There she is! Do you see her?" shot my mother, motioning behind my head toward the glass-encased wine rack by LOLA's foyer. I spun around slyly to try to catch a glimpse of the crazy woman in the purple tutu my family kept going on about. But I missed her yet again — this time she had ducked behind a gaggle of chatty party girls downing bottles of wine. Damn that purple tutu. It was becoming my white whale.
Of course, I had spent most of the night observing my own oddity: a 60-ish man with a gray ponytail who, between glasses of scotch, pulled two much younger women onto the small dance floor and proceeded to boogie so close to each of their breasts that I thought he might start a ménage à trois right there.
"My, my, my," said my mother, looking as if she had just stumbled upon a particularly good sale at the mall. "I had no idea we would be in for such a treat." I cocked my head slightly as if to ask when she meant.
"The people watching," she answered. "It's fantastic."
LOLA, a west Delray restaurant and hipster ultra lounge, offers the sort of unadulterated voyeurism that put Jerry Springer on the map. Within its halls are Bocahontases prowling around in skirts shorter than the men they date, dudes in shiny shirts picking up at the bar, elderly diners dressed to the hilt, and former captains of industry setting back against the red brick wall and soaking it all in with a martini or six. To park yourself against a plush leatherette bench in the restaurant's faintly glowing lounge area is to grab a seat at the Big Show — all you need is a well-mixed cocktail handed over by one of the black-draped waitrons and your ticket is punched. And if you're the sort of guy or gal who enjoys being watched, well, bully for you. You're going to have a good time, if not because of the live music (mostly classic rock, ´70s, and jazz cover groups that are actually quite good) then for the excellent party food that Chef Bruno Silva and owner Wendy Rosano turn out.
The place is among the newest of South Florida's endless parade of ultra lounges, and it has that "upscale singles party" vibe. The valet area looks like a Mercedes dealership, and just beyond those heavy, frosted glass doors is more old money than the Bureau of Engraving takes in all year. The combined effect of the place, while modern and cool, is one of comfort: It's easy on the eyes without being too flashy. That ambiance, coupled with the stellar food, keep LOLA's well-heeled feet planted in reality.
LOLA stands for "Love Often, Laugh Alot," the kind of silly acronym that means something only to people who get their life advice from day calendars or the backs of Captain Morgan bottles. It's the third restaurant in Rosano's mini-empire of home-style Italian eateries that includes Bistro Mio and Cucina Mio, the latter located just a few doors down from LOLA in the same plaza. But to compare LOLA to Rosano's other, homier establishments is like trying to mark the differences between the Jonas Brothers and il Divo.
The restaurant was already packed by 7 o'clock on a recent Tuesday night when I went for the first time, bringing a date. We pulled up to a section of high tops and low, plush lounge seats located near LOLA's rounded bar. The area is smartly designed, with exposed brick walls curving around the dining room full of mahogany tables with crème leather seating. White, acoustic drop ceilings house an array of LED lights, which shimmer off the mosaic tiles placed sporadically around the room. It's also ripe for viewing the show, since it faces the pebble-accented wall where live bands play and folks congregate to dance. Here, everyone is drinking wildly, so my date and I joined them with bottles of Left Hand Milk Stout ($6) and Penn Hefeweizen ($5), two reasonably priced entries on LOLA's varied list of craft beers.
Our server, Kati, a smiley 20-something with flowing brown hair, offered to pace our chosen spread of small plates so we might better enjoy the show. "Take it slow and enjoy yourself," she recommended. And so we did, first with a bowl of flawlessly seasoned Moroccan lentil soup ($7), a daily special that was hearty and rich despite being meatless. My date cooed over the soup, and we jousted with our spoons for the last bite.
Kati was a master of the kitchen's drop times: Moments after our soup bowl was removed, a salad of thinly sliced yellow and red beets arrived ($12). The pungent root vegetables were paired with flecks of creamy goat cheese, crunchy/sweet walnuts, and a light mix of lettuces livened by delicate citrus vinaigrette. We watched a group of dancers flock to the floor as the jazz group's saxophonist belted headlong into a solo. We moved on to margherita flatbread ($9), dotted with slivers of plum tomato and a contrasting mixture of fresh and conventional mozzarella.
As good as the crisp flatbread was, a set of blue crab taquitos ($14) was even better finger food. We gleefully snapped up the rolls of gooey cheese and lush crabmeat as if they were miniature burritos, dressing them with some rustic, roasted corn and some finely puréed salsa emboldened by jalapeño and tequila. As the jazz band slowed into a rendition of "Just the Two of Us," I felt like this date night of small plates and cocktails couldn't have worked out any better. The final tab for two full bellies plus drinks and entertainment: just $70.
When I returned with my parents and sister on a Friday night, LOLA was even wilder. We lacked a reservation, so again we shuffled into the lounge and wedged our way into the low benches between two groups of singles looking to party. A pair of plastic-surgery disasters sauntered by in low-cut dresses, and my folks looked shell-shocked. "Is this our future if we stay in Florida?" my dad wondered aloud. "Not a chance," my mother responded, pursing her lips like they were full of collagen. "We're not divorced, and we already have good genes."
On this night, service in the bar was slow, but our waitress was sweet and apologetic. As she rushed among the seven or eight tables she was working, she paused to take our drinks and ask our forgiveness for the delay. With how quickly the kitchen pumps out its dishes, it was no problem anyway — just moments after we'd ordered, our plates of tuna tartare ($14) and fried calamari ($12) showed up. The tartare was exceptional: A round of clean, oceanic-tasting, ruby-colored flesh was layered over avocado and speckled with sesame seeds. On the side came a trio of red, green, and black sauces and a nest of lightly fried taro-root chips for scooping. The calamari, served in a miniature fry basket and served with a duo of marinara and creamy rémoulade, had an inventive presentation with an unfortunate side effect: the fry basket trapped the steam from the shellfish inside, which turned the otherwise crisp batter soggy. Still, the accompanying sauces were good enough to make up the difference.
While we supped on calamari and tuna, we caught a glimpse of a gangster film playing on the bar's many flat-panel displays. The movie, Donnie Brasco, intrigued my dad so much that he could barely turn his attention away from a particularly gruesome scene in the film, even as his wood-oven-roasted wild salmon was dropped ($23). "I can't believe they're going to saw his leg off right here with all these people watching!" he said, as if Brasco himself were performing the amputation right there in the restaurant. His shock turned to pleasure, though, when he took a bite of the supple fish, cooked perfectly to a fleshy, milky pink. I traded some salmon for bites of my skirt steak with chimichurri sauce ($24), a cut of medium-rare beef so perfectly trimmed as to be greaseless and moist all at once.
I couldn't decide which I liked better: the meat or a side of garlicky green beans lovingly seasoned and cooked to a toothsome crunch. My mother was stunned too by her Cobb salad with grilled chicken ($16). The hearty plate stuck close to the classic formula yet stretched to higher reaches thanks to a light and savory tequila lime dressing that lingered in your mouth even longer than the salty bacon. As we finished with a few cups of coffee, Mom got that look on her face again. I turned around to see a flash of purple fabric disappearing onto the patio. A wide set of doors in the dining room leads to the tree-shrouded outdoor area, where couples sit around a circular fire pit and sip cocktails from the outdoor bar. Apparently that's where tutu headed.
What makes LOLA so entertaining? Is it the chance to observe all the beauty and strangeness of Florida in its natural habitat, or is it the food, or some combination of both? I know my parents had a blast — they kept thanking me for bringing them. And even though the high-energy singles scene isn't really my thing, I'd go back to sample more of the small plates menu, like the Maryland crab cakes with red pepper aioli or the sriracha-marinated wood-oven chicken wings. I'd grab a beer at a high top by the bar and watch dudes in fedoras dance with chicks in low-slung tops and tap my toes to the band's rendition of the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling."
If getting buzzed in resto-lounges truly is our future in Florida, we may as well start living for the moment. Besides, I still haven't caught a glimpse of that woman in the purple tutu.
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