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Susan Axelrod

Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business before turning to journalism more than a decade ago. By day, she is an online content producer for mainetoday.com and the Portland Press Herald. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs, preferably followed by a cocktail. Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or saxelrod@mainetoday.com On Twitter: @susansaxelrod

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Posted: April 8, 2014

From Lola to Lolita: Restaurateurs make a fresh start on Munjoy Hill

Written by: Susan Axelrod - staff writer - saxelrod@mainetoday.com

Guy and Stella Hernandez

All photos by Susan Axelrod

When Stella and Guy Hernandez announced their plans to close their popular, 7-year-old Munjoy Hill restaurant, Bar Lola, last November, they also said they would eventually open something new. Where and what the new restaurant would be, however, was still up in the air.

Together with their business partner, Neil Reiter, they debated various options before deciding on one that was right under their noses. They would move Hilltop Coffee, which the couple also owns, into the Bar Lola space (they own the building, too) and create their new restaurant in the former coffee shop location (that building is owned by Reiter). The two buildings are less than a block apart.

Last week, I met with Stella and Guy in the under-construction space that will be Lolita — the name of the new restaurant. Both were architects before they transitioned into the restaurant business, and they have a keen sense of style, form and function that figures prominently in their vision for Lolita, shared with their architect, Lauren Reiter. Neil Reiter, who has a long connection to the restaurant world, talked with me by phone from his home in Brooklin. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

SA: How did you connect with Neil and come up with the plan to switch spaces?

GUY: Neil was our landlord at the coffee shop and it was one of those situations where we just hit it off. You meet someone and you have a 15-minute conversation over a cup of coffee … He said ‘hey if you guys ever want to do anything, let me know.’ It was one of those kind of relationships were it was waiting for the right place right time … it was staring us in the face and we said ‘how about we do this?’

STELLA: We all have different experiences and skills and it was copacetic … for lack of a better word. I’ve been really thrilled with how it’s worked out.

GUY: We debate the important things.

STELLA: I’ll take that fork if you take that glass …

GUY: Stella and I have been together for a long time and worked together for a long time and when you’re partners, it’s always a challenge for everyone involved. But it was so easy it seemed almost inevitable that we were going to do a project together. Of all the ideas, this is the one that kept coming back, that kept hitting all the things we were interested in.

NEIL: My previous relationship with the restaurant world has been strictly on the financing side … I’d always wanted to open a place and in particular in Portland … I wasn’t going to be foolish to enter into this industry without a safety net. Luckily I have Guy and Stella, who know the business inside and out.

Our visions were completely in line with each other. The concept was born out of all three of us … we sat down in the space and we had this open session: what do you think this restaurant should be. I had this vision of what I wanted to do. There was no struggle at all.

The bar and the custom shelves by John Astor, which will hold dishes, glassware and olive oil, among other things.

Architect Lauren Reiter’s rendering of the bar at Lolita, showing the “trinity” of wood-fired grill, hand-cranked prosciutto slicer and hand-pulled espresso machine. Photo courtesy of Lolita/Facebook

SA: Tell me about the design of this space and how it’s going to be different from Bar Lola.

GUY: The other space had 30 seats in the dining room and four at the bar. Here we’ll have 10 at the bar and 18 on the banquette [against the opposite wall]. The space is a little more efficient.

It’s less than 900 square feet here. Part of the idea all along was the interaction between dining room and the kitchen. Not so much that the kitchen was on show, but that it was very obvious what you would be doing here. The change between here and Bar Lola came out of what was happening in the background [the kitchen at Bar Lola was not open to view; it will be at Lolita]. … Someone mentioned that it was like I was describing a boat. Every inch is going to be utilized in some useful way and that was important to us because of necessity and because it was part of the concept. There’s no magic here … If someone says ‘what kind of olive oil do you use,’ you can look up and see it [displayed on the open shelves].

STELLA: There will be wine stored above the banquette and in the shelves above the bar there will be cups, glasses, etc. The shelves were made by John Astor, who did the woodwork at Miyake and Pai Men Miyake — but he started with Bar Lola! — they are reclaimed beech boxes, with hand-stained red interiors … he loves to collect wood so he has it, and then he finds the client for it. He and Lauren really connected over the detail.

Behind the bar will be two, highly visible, important items, the first a vintage, hand-pulled, copper, Victoria espresso machine — the first piece of equipment they bought for the new restaurant.

STELLA: Neil was so excited about it he took a picture of the first shot that came out of the the machine … It will be the first thing you see when you come in.

GUY: The second piece of equipment we bought was a hand-cranked prosciutto slicer. They’re really sexy.  We found a company that essentially bought the design specs from the original company from the 1920s in Italy. It’s an amazing machine … you turn one crank and that’s a flywheel that turns a chain and that chain turns a universal joint in the bottom and that turns the blade and also moves the tray forth and back.

The kitchen will have a 6-burner stove and a wood-fired grill, also highly visible from the dining area.

GUY: We went started talking about the project and what kind of cooking we wanted to do, we went back and forth between a grill and a pizza oven. We ended up settling on a grill because it was more flexible. The technology around this is all around the idea of back to the basics. It’s a big sort of box and I’m going to build a fire in it and cook things on it.

STELLA: Those [espresso machine, slicer and grill] are “the trinity.”

GUY: But those are also the underpinnings of the kitchen … it’s very straightforward.

SA: So you’re going to be doing Italian-inspired food?

GUY: I would say Mediterranean more than Italian. Certainly we all have flavor profiles and dishes that we are attracted to and it is only in retrospect that we say, Oh, those are Italian, Oh, you’re really into those oily fish of North Africa and Spain or the Greek cultures of these slow-cooked foods or whatever it is. All of those things are what we like to eat and we secondarily say those are influences. It’s driven by ‘What do you want to eat? Oh, this is what I like .. Great.’ And that makes it easy for us to say ‘Should this be on the menu? Well would you buy it?

STELLA: We also have in common those cultures we are attracted to and simple preparation.

GUY: Three ingredients, two pans. Those are my conversations with cooks for ‘how do you do this.’ One fire and six burners. That dish whatever it is might be amazing, but if it takes four pans to get it on the plate, that is a great style of cooking and we enjoy it — at Bar Lola we had a 10-burner stove, so more time to work on each individual plate but here: three ingredients, two pans.

Stella had an architecture professor who quoted a fashion professor: ‘Always take off the last thing you put on.’ All of those ideas factor into the cocktails, the wine list and the food. Take off the last thing … is that necessary?

I was talking to Neil about it as we were making this transition: what did we do at Bar Lola, what are we going to do here. This is how I would eat it, if I were by myself I would do this and this and this and I would probably grab a hunk of bread and eat it out of the pan. But … we should probably make it a dish, so let’s add this component to it and put it on a plate. And he said: Back up to where ‘this is how I would eat it’ and that’s when we stop. And I said, that makes a lot of sense.

Left: The wood-fired grill. Right: Industrial-inspired lighting

SA: Back to the design for a moment. What are these black pipes for?

STELLA: From Inspired Wire Studio: They are the start of the lighting system that’s a grid and branches out over the bar and the banquettes, with some fixtures at the end and some that drop down. And a similar ethos but a chandelier for this little waiting area.

The bar is zinc. There will be wood and metal shelves in the kitchen. White subway tile behind the bar. The banquette cushion is black – the back is the same wood as the shelves.

GUY: As Lauren did more and more sketches and investigations we thought why don’t we go for a more European look? It’s lighter.

SA: So it’s going to be sort of an industrial esthetic?

STELLA: I think because of the open ceiling and the trusses and what’s there, that in some ways the combination … we call it ‘Old World bodega’ … with all of this stuff and sort of the creativity of some of people we’re working with to match different aspects of the space  … I mean the bar is old school, it’s zinc.

GUY: Yes, this is industrial but an artisan craftsman assembled those pieces. Yes, this is plywood [pointing to the shelves] this is all modular, but made special because a craftsman, an artist, put it together. There will be those old world-new world juxtapositions. Bringing those things together in the pieces that make up the space. The food, but even the environment is about … if you’re sitting at a bar, you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you and that’s the environment that we want.

STELLA: We keep coming back to this idea of conviviality. That’s why we’re open all day, we don’t close between lunch and dinner. You can eat what suits you at that moment: a plate of olives or, a full dinner. There’s a reason to come here; there’s food, yeah we get that, but we’re also going to encourage some other interaction.

NEIL: It will be a warm, welcoming, neighborhood spot where you can come in at any time of day. Where you can have  cup of coffee or a glass of wine … or a beer and a panini.

SA: Neil, what will your role be at Lolita?

NEIL: I do have a very deep interest in the operation of the restaurant – I’ve traditionally been on the financing side. If Guy and Stella will have me in some capacity on the floor, that is my anticipation that I will participate in a meaningful way.

Up until this point I’ve been involved in marketing, the design side, menu development, things related to the look and feel … the tactical things … everything required to get us to the point of opening.

It’s unclear what I will do specifically. I have a long and deep connection with food, so I’ve been working with Guy on menu development. I think he’d be happy to have me in the kitchen doing something, rather than getting in the way. If it means chopping onions, I’ll be there. If Stella wants me to work the front door, I’ll be there. I’m willing to roll up my sleeves.

Left: Stella and Guy asked the previous occupants to leave this post in place. Right: New shelves for wine above where the banquette will be.

SA: What will your hours be?

STELLA: 11 to 11, six days a week. People always thought we had such a cush schedule at Bar Lola – we served dinner Wednesday through Saturday, but it took us six days to be open four.

GUY: So we’ll be open six days 11 to 11 and like Stella was saying, we’re just open. If it’s 3  o’clock and you just got out of your office and it’s the first time you had a chance to realize ‘Oh, I haven’t had lunch,’ you can come in and get lunch. You might sit down next to someone who has started their weekend early and so they’re meeting friends for a glass of wine or a beer and those two things can kind of co-exist.

There’s the imaginary story I have in my head, you know you come early and you stop for a beer and some olives or nuts and you see a friend and they join you and you see two more people and then they join you and you say ‘well now it’s dinner time, let’s go get something to eat,’ and you look around and you go ‘oh, why don’t we just stay here and eat dinner.’ And then that cycle just happens constantly.

When we talk to people and we explain that to them … many people live these lives that are non-traditional. Here in Portland especially, there are all kinds of people who have lives that are not bound by particular labels or hours. And so what we said is well, where would we like to go if we could go out … let’s do that. And there are people here who are like us, whether we know them or not and maybe they would like to do the same thing. That makes it very easy for us to develop or evolve the project.

If we said ‘we should be chasing this market … this market’s really hot right now’ and then what do you do when it’s not hot anymore. Now what do you do? If you’re saying ‘what would I do,’ then you’re always committed to it. Even if your position changes.

STELLA: When we did Bar Lola that’s what we were interested in – multiple courses. But our lives have changed since then, it’s been almost 10 years, you know, since we imagined it. And this is what we’re interested in now. And that’s why we can put so much energy in, because it’s a sort of organic evolution of things. It doesn’t mean other ideas aren’t good, they’re just not where our interests are right now.

GUY: For all of us, there are easier way to make a living. So if this is the choice you’ve made, you’d better be happy, to put yourself behind it and say ‘Yes, I’d pay money for that. I wish someone would do this for me’

SA: You guys must be very excited. What’s your time frame?

STELLA: Mid-May

GUY: We opened Bar Lola in May because we didn’t know any better. This one we’re going through a lot more moving pieces, there’s a lot more going on. May is still very realistic.

STELLA: We took our last vacation. We’re done now!

For more on Lolita, see the Facebook page.

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