PORTLAND, Maine — After seven years, Stella and Guy Hernandez closed Bar Lola in November. While regulars lamented, the Munjoy Hill restaurateurs promised they were committed to Portland’s East End and would return.
When their new venture, Lolita, opens next month the culinary crowd will see the couple walks their talk.
Located a stone’s throw from their former cozy, prix fixe institution, Lolita is a hipper, more relaxed dining spot. Lola’s coquettish cousin Lolita is unpredictable, seductive and ready to push the boundaries of a modern bistro.
“We didn’t want to just pull the tablecloths off and say, ‘Oops, here we go,’” with a new concept said Stella, who could have closed, renovated and retooled Bar Lola.
Regulars would constantly be saying, “It’s not like the old Bar Lola,” her husband and chef, Guy, chimed in.
Instead, the couple and partner Neil Reiter did a switcheroo. They moved Hilltop Coffee, which the Hernandezes own, one storefront away to 100 Congress St., Bar Lola’s old home. For months they have been working to turn the former cafe into an “Old World bodega.”
The self-described “serial entrepreneurs” were ready to begin again.
“We are interested in different things now than we were. Our skills evolved, our lives evolved and our experience widened,” said Stella. “We are interested in working in a different food environment.”
At the heart of Lolita is a wood-fired oven, where dishessuch as grilled pizza, Maine littleneck clams and roasted marrow bone served on pea shoots should please even the most jaded diner.
Whereas the kitchen at Bar Lola was occulted, Loltia has nothing to hide.
An Italian, hand-cranked meat slicer will be on display to portion out a smattering of meats such as duck pastrami from Portland and Jamon Serrano from Spain. On the walls, instead of framed paintings, custom-built red shelves loaded with ingredients and wine line the 28-seat space. All day long employees and chefs will grab items as needed, creating a new kind of functional art that also serves as an extended pantry.
“Food as theater is the trend,” said Stella. “This is theater of a different kind.”
The idea is to impart the abundance of a European market. A place that “makes you feel good,” said architect Lauren Reiter, who helped the team express their new endeavor through design.
The working menu, subject to change, is divided into small, medium, large and larger plates. A small tuna crudo with lemon olive oil and sea salt ($9) and a larger, local porterhouse steak ($90) for three or more demonstrate the breadth.
Sharing plates has been popular for a while, but with no sharp distinction between lunch and dinner, drinks and apps, Lolita hopes to break down habitual norms.
“This is very of-the-minute,” said Reiter, a marketer and real estate investor from Brooklin, who co-owns the building. A partner in several New York City restaurants, this is his first foray into the Maine dining scene.
Long impressed with his tenants’ skill and work ethic, they put their heads together and the concept clicked.
“They are first class restaurateurs,” said Reiter. “Their level of detail is mindboggling.”
Traditional diners may have a hard time getting their mind around the fresh concept, but Reiter breaks it down.
“We invite people to stop by for two minutes or two hours,” he said.
With fewer and fewer people working traditional 9-to-5 jobs, the notion of meeting for a bite after work has shifted. When such an urge strikes, be it at 2 p.m. or 10 p.m., Lolita will soon be there.
“Munjoy Hill very much embodies that kind of lifestyle. Look around — there is always activity and a need. We are fulfilling a niche to dine and socialize when you want to,” said Reiter, who thinks of Lolita as an Old World bodega because “any time of day you can have wine, beer, a couple of small plates and congregate. Have a full meal or linger into the night over cocktails.”
The partners seem energized by the process. Even as designers and workmen buzz around them, bringing in lighting fixtures, they are poised and unfazed.
And though Bar Lola was an institution, they are not looking back.
“We never thought that we would do it forever,” said Stella. “We were happy that people felt attached to it. That kind of affection is wonderful to hear. I like to think that we are capable of doing it again.”