There's a lot of pure, joyous animal charisma circulating at Spice Resto-Lounge. There are chicks in leopard-print catsuits and in spandex tank tops, in tiny, fringed minis that shimmy with every jut of the hip. There are lantern-jawed men with dark hair pulled into ponytails, dressed all in black, and pumped-up guys with shaved heads and designer eyewear. A woman modeling a shirt that looks like a beaded curtain flits by, beads swinging, and then a bouffant blond tottering on white-leather, spike-heeled boots rimmed in fake fur. Expanses of exposed skin are whipped cream, cinnamon, café con leche, double espresso.
Flat-bellied, pierced, tattooed, the staff here treats clothing like an optional accessory. Now they're clambering up on the raised platform to dance a merengue, while the unflappably cool singer who's been crooning bossa nova tunes and charmingly mispronouncing her Beatles lyrics ("Come to get her. Right nooo. Ova mi.") tosses her tresses over a bare shoulder and slopes outside for a cigarette.
This is sex sans the smut, and you can't help but fall hopelessly in love with these sunny, well-built kids, with their gorgeous smiles and washboard abs. Everything about Spice Resto-Lounge is cool without trying, hip without attitude. The doorman is there to usher you in to this fantasy factory, not to keep you simmering behind a velvet rope assuming you've made a reservation, that is. You've tumbled down the rabbit hole and found yourself in Wonderland; even the décor hits the right notes, an artful tongue-in-cheek chic that looks slick and urban but never gives itself airs. Electric-blue light boxes emanate rays from lime-green walls, tables are laminated with cheesecake shots of hunky Latinos, a podium at the entrance is covered in faux fur. There's a stage for the house salsa band, Spice Caliente, which kicks in around 9:30 or 10, above a dance floor, and you can see them just fine from any seat in the place.
The year-old Resto-Lounge, settled in where Zombie used to be on Hollywood Boulevard, is a place to celebrate. Birthdays, bachelor parties, graduations, bridal showers, New Year's Eve parties whatever your milestone happens to be. When I kick the bucket, let them hold my wake here, and I want the food and the music both to be hot, hot, hot. The joint roars along seven nights a week until 4 a.m., and it's open for brunch and lunch Friday through Sunday; when we arrived for dinner at 8:30 on a Friday, it was already elbow to elbow. Our host, owner Arnie Batista (Batista and his partner Frank Hernandez are former owners of Mango's Tropical Cafe in South Beach), managed to shoehorn us in to a perfectly situated table: We had a good view of the Brazilian bossa nova singer and her guitarist, the dance stage, and the entrance, where a delectable parade of eye candy came and went. A threesome was toasting a birthday on one side of us; we had a long table full of openly available men on the other. Perfect.
When a place offers this much entertainment, charges no cover, and doesn't tack on an extra fee for the show, I hardly expect the food to amount to anything. But for once, I'm wrong. Spice has a full, though not extensive, Latin-fusion supper-club menu steaks and fish, salads and small plates, a wine list and a lineup of reasonably priced club drinks. A "Hollywood Cosmo" or one of their five flavors of mojito or a white chocolate martini will set you back seven bucks, which saves you having to nurse a single cocktail all night; you'll need to toss back a few to keep dancing until the small hours anyway. The other surprise is the jolly, efficient, and careful service, especially when the odds are entirely stacked against it. Since a 15 percent gratuity is pre-added to your bill, they have no reason to be nice to you but just because... they are.
Spice's servers are called upon to have saintly patience, balletic grace, and split-second reflexes. They're negotiating heavy trays of food and top-heavy martini glasses through a gauntlet of writhing bodies. The staff is busting moves by the front stage; customers can't sit still for five seconds; friends of the house are back-slapping everybody in sight; Hollywood cops are in and out not to answer disturbance calls, mind you, but to kiss the girls and glad-hand the boss. Spice is on very friendly terms with the local police force.
How the waitrons manage to get anything done in the midst of this effervescent party is a mystery. But they not only get it done but get it done right. I ordered a "Caesar Cardini Salad" ($6.95) and a peppercorn-crusted filet mignon with brandy sauce ($23.95), cooked medium rare. My date asked for a plate of Brazilian coxinhas ($6.95) and a Latin-style tilapia filet ($14.95). Carlos, our server, told us politely that a birthday party for 30 people had just sat down in the adjacent room so that we might have a longer-than-usual wait for our food but that he'd do his best to get it out to us pronto.
That was nice, and in the meantime, I sat back, sipped my Cosmo, and listened to the girl sing "Desafinado" so very sweetly, not a note out of tune. As it turned out, our food came in good time. The coxinhas, potato croquettes stuffed with minced, spiced chicken, rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried, were a warming comfort food just spicy enough, with a sweet, red-pepper dipping sauce, to tickle our appetites. My caesar salad wasn't necessarily extraordinary; it was the usual version served in most restaurants romaine tossed in a creamy dressing with croutons and sprinkled with shredded parmesan. But I was in the mood for what I think of as supper-club food steak, potatoes, salad. The salad was cold and the lettuce crisp, and that was the best I'd hoped for.
Main courses were delicious. Filet mignon was well-crusted with cracked pepper, a good, dense reduced sauce with hints of brandy pooling around it. Our waiter thoughtfully stopped by to ask if it was cooked to my liking it was; the steak was cooked an exact medium rare. More bottled water ($3). A glass of red wine ($6.95). The kitchen doesn't waste a lot of energy on presentation: a sprinkle of parsley and that's it. A mountain of whipped potatoes full of butter and a stack of grilled asparagus, zucchini, red peppers, grilled onions, and yellow summer squash provided no-frills accompaniment, and I couldn't stop eating it until there wasn't a bite left. My partner's lightly breaded and fried tilapia was topped with chunky tomatoes and fresh thyme and served with coconut rice. Something like your mama might cook you for a special occasion.
Also on the menu: shrimp ceviche, beef empanadas, masitas de puerco appetizers. And Argentine skirt steak, roasted garlic shrimp, seared ahi tuna, Chilean sea bass, and fettuccini Alfredo, for entrées, all fairly priced, from $9.95 to $23.95.
Our dessert, a chocolate ecstasy ($6.95), was suitably ecstatic dark-chocolate cake, molten in the center, topped with vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce and sprinkled with cocoa powder.
Manager David Holland told me Spice has a special menu for New Year's Eve. A four-course meal, beginning with cream of asparagus soup, progressing to salmon rolls or caesar salad, and a choice of filet mignon, grilled sea bass, or coconut-crusted chicken breasts, plus dessert, a bottle of Moët et Chandon, all kinds of party favors, and entertainment, will run you $99 per person. What a way to ring in 2006 if the new year is going to be half as much fun as a night out at Spice, I can't wait to get started.