The Lola Effect

Cleveland's best restaurant disappeared in '05 and still grabbed top billing.

Restaurants in 2005
Another bad year for Cleveland restaurants? Not to Lola's Michael Symon. - Walter  Novak
Another bad year for Cleveland restaurants? Not to Lola's Michael Symon.
For followers of the local dining scene, the top news of 2005 -- and one of the few stories coming out of Cleveland to gain national attention -- was written in Tremont, where Michael and Liz Symon decided to uproot their wildly successful Lola, a casually upscale salon with a contemporary American menu, and move into downtown.

Lola served her final meal in April, and by May, the Symons reopened the space as Mediterranean-leaning Lolita. Meantime, work began on the future home of Lola -- the former Commercial Building on East Fourth Street, just south of House of Blues and Pickwick & Frolic.

One wouldn't be out of line to wonder why they've messed with their success -- especially when it means moving a winning concept from the heart of Cleveland's hippest neighborhood to an area that until recently was best known for its wig shops and junkies?

The Symons can tick off a host of good reasons, many involving a need for more space. To that end, the new 5,000-square-foot, $1.5 million project will permit the installation of a state-of-the-art open kitchen, a six-seat chef's table, a 16-seat bar, a glass-enclosed wine wall, and several private and semi-private dining spaces. A separate "curing room" will be available for Symon's handmade sausages, and a large downstairs work space will be home to pastry chef Cory Barrett, a veteran of Detroit's award-winning Tribute and most recently at Okada in Las Vegas. (Symon's popular cooking classes will continue to be held in Tremont, in the private dining space above Lolita.)

But for the Symons, who embrace stress the way others embrace kittens, there's also the thrill of starting over, albeit with a ready-made reputation. "We've done great things in Tremont," Michael said earlier this year. "But when you have the opportunity to breathe new life into a business, like with this move, it's a wonderful thing."

Of course, if you're a restaurateur whose name isn't Symon, very little was wonderful about 2005. A weak economy continued to depress overall spending, the ongoing influx of well-funded out-of-state chains -- from burrito joints to high-end steakhouses -- fractured that already small pie into even skimpier slices, and locally owned restaurants continued to stumble at an impressive rate. (See "Eat & Run.")

From a diner's perspective, of course, those encroaching chain restaurants aren't necessarily synonymous with Satan's spawn. After all, their very success is based on the fact that they are generally moderately priced, family-friendly, clean, convenient, and predictable. (Not that you'd visit one hoping for cutting-edge cuisine.) But perhaps more troubling, big chains tend to stomp out regional variations in cooking styles, creating a sort of "national cuisine," without regard for interesting (or delicious) cultural and geographic distinctions. In other words, local owners may rightly ask: When we're all heading to Olive Garden, how will Little Italy survive?

Sergio Abramof (owner of Sergio's on University Circle and the new Saravá on Shaker Square) is among those who ponders such questions. As president of Cleveland Originals, a chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America, Abramof tries to level the playing field for small, locally owned restaurants by encouraging group purchasing, advertising, and opportunities to take advantage of "economies of scale."

"We warned people two years ago, when we saw all the chains coming in [to Legacy Village and Eton-Chagrin], that things were going to get bad," he says. "More than 5,000 new seats went into the East Side alone. You combine that with the economic downturn, and it's had a huge impact."

The invasion hasn't let up, either. In the past year, Maggiano's Little Italy (owned by Dallas-based Brinker International) has opened a 500-seat outpost at Beachwood Place. And like Lyndhurst's Legacy Village, Crocker Park in Westlake has hosted a slew of out-of-town competitors in its first full year, including Cheesecake Factory, Brio, Hoggy's Barn and Grill, and Champs. (On the other hand, some locally owned alternatives opened at Crocker Park too, including Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, Blake's Seafood Restaurant, and Aladdin's.)

Still, while the chains make a convenient target for local restaurants' ire, name-brand competition is only one factor contributing to the stagnant scene. A second, more insidious element is the product of our stubbornly weak economy: Once-frequent diners are not only hoarding their nights on the town; they're also scaling back when they do head out. "Fine dining is dying out," Abramof declares. "It's being replaced by casual neighborhood spots with good food, lower prices, and excellent service, but without the stuffy attitude."

Looks like many local spots are taking the hint. After specializing in contemporary Italian fare for four decades, James Dominic's of Westlake morphed into Jimbo's Bar and Grill in July. In Chardon, John DeJoy transformed his upscale bistro, John Palmer's, into the more family-friendly Johnny D's Italian Kitchen (which ultimately folded, nonetheless). In Bainbridge, Michael Longo closed his bistro, Firefly, only to reopen it as Firefly Seafood & Steak; if the repositioning didn't actually lower prices, it did allow him to offer a bigger assortment of small plates and noshes, just right for casual dining. Even Liz and Michael Symon seemed to recognize the demand for more affordable fare with the debut of Lolita and its focus on small plates and apps.

"We've got way too many upscale spots," echoes Joan Pistone, past president of the Cleveland Area Restaurant Association. "They open, they do well for a few months, and then the crowds move on. Unless some of these restaurateurs get on the ball, we'll continue to see the high-end places come and go."

Meantime, apparently oblivious to the irony, the Symons stand as an obvious exception to the trend. In Tremont, Lolita is thriving -- just try to get an 8 p.m. reservation on a Saturday -- and Lola's new 110-seat home is shaping up to be a knockout. The Symons originally had hoped to open in October, but Liz now targets March 2006. "We opened the original Lola on March 11, and that's worked out pretty well for us," she laughs. "So if all goes well, that's what we'd like to aim for this time around."

Even if Lola hasn't served a meal in months, she's still on the minds of national restaurant watchers. The spot got a nod in January's Bon Appetit among the nation's "highly anticipated openings," and will be featured on the Fine Living Network's signature reality series, Opening Soon. A camera crew descended upon East Fourth Street last week to start filming the 10-part show; they'll continue documenting all the inevitable trials, tribulations, and triumphs right up through the grand opening, and the show will air sometime later in 2006.

"It's good for us, it's good for the street, and it's good for the city," says Liz. She's delighted to be in the national spotlight again, though she knows the added scrutiny won't make Lola's return any easier. "Now let's just hope we don't do anything embarrassing!"

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