By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
The List at Lola was long and dignified. Long, because my name was about twentieth from the top -- at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night on South Pearl Street. Dignified, because it seemed like every man, woman and child in the city of Denver who was cooler, richer, hipper and better-dressed than I was had arrived five minutes earlier and either been seated, snagged a stool at the small bar or left a name on the List as well as a sentry posted in the packed waiting area, while the rest of the party went off to kill time searching for new belly-button rings, a drive-through cosmetic surgeon or an SUV dealership.
"Okay, Ralph," the hostess said cheerfully. (After one look at the crowd, I'd given my name as "Ralph Wiggum," after the nose-picking, perpetually geeky fat kid from The Simpsons -- it felt appropriate.) "It's going to be an hour...." She ran one slim finger down the List. "Maybe an hour and a half. Is that okay?"
What was I going to say, no? Then slink off and grab some Taco Bell? Of course not. I said sure, a ninety-minute wait for Mexican food sounded divine. And no, I didn't have a cell-phone number where she could ring me when a table opened up. I'd just check back in an hour or so to see if the herd had thinned a little, and thank you very much.
Chips and tableside guacamole:
Corn and avocado soup (cup): $3
Shrimp ceviche: $9
Chicken carnitas: $15
Shrimp and pork estofada: $16
Half lobster: $15
Salmon tacos: $14
"Okay," said the hostess, already smiling past my wife and me at the shivering glitterati piling up in the doorway behind us. "But if you do decide on somewhere else, just call and let us know, okay?"
Unstated subtext: Have fun at Applebee's. I hear the riblets are delicious.
Lola -- the six-month-old coastal Mexican restaurant from Dave Query and Jamey Fader, the people who brought you Jax -- doesn't take reservations. While there was a reason, and a good reason, for this when Lola was still just a concept, it doesn't hold for -- how do I put this gently? -- a phenomenon.
"I just wanted this, you know, not down-and-dirty, but simple place," Fader said when I got him on the phone last week, three days after my Saturday-night visit to his restaurant. He was in bed, suffering from a self-described case of "the bubonic fucking plague" -- which is about the only thing that could keep him off the line, even for one night. Back at Lola, Fader's crew was suffering, too: Their chef was down with the Black Death, the guy coming in to cover was stuck in a broken-down pickup, and the List, even on a Tuesday, was starting to fill up 45 minutes before the doors would even open. "I try to tell people to come in on Monday or Tuesday," Fader explained. "Avoid the three-hour wait. And now they are."
How did this "simple place" wind up drawing such crowds? Fader thinks it's part of natural evolution: In the beginning, you get the people walking by who stop in out of curiosity, and then "you hit a six-month stride, and a certain genre of customer discovers you," he said. "I'm glad to have all and any people who come to my restaurant. But I'm just this old skate rat, you know? Just this scummy little line cook, and all of a sudden there's this University of Denver money coming in and this Cherry Creek money coming in. Sometimes it seems like all of the beautiful people in the city are here."
He's right: On some nights, all of the beautiful people are there. Right now, Lola is probably the only place in Denver that could put up a velvet rope and get away with it. The beautiful people would come, and they'd keep coming, braving the List night after night, weekend after weekend. "It's a whole different animal now," Fader said, while admitting that some of Lola's attraction is beyond even his understanding.
The restaurant doesn't have any of those features that generally act as bait for the swells -- no million-dollar bathrooms, no abstract art on the walls, no bizarre Hispano-Bulgarian-fusion menu, not a stick of Swedish conceptual furniture. The dining room is almost rustic, with its plain tables and straight-backed wooden chairs. Tall pillar candles flicker everywhere, adding warmth to an already bright space decorated with simple touches of glass back-lit in earthy blues and greens that dimple and shine like the placid water of a hidden cove on Baja's western shore. With its chrome stools and blackened-iron fixtures, the bar area looks a little more metropolitan; tall tiers of glass shelves tower behind the bartenders, filled with more candles and more varieties of artsy tequila than you'd think existed in the whole of Central and South America.
Fader, an East Coast mick like me, was none too familiar with peasant Mexican cuisine before he hooked up with Query at Jax. "It was really Dave put this bug on me," he explained. Query was excited about opening an unaffected Mexican place while everyone else in town seemed to be doing upscale, high-end and/or Southwestern fusion, and his interest rubbed off on Fader, who did the obligatory trips sur de las Américas to get a feel for the coastal Mexican flavors that would form the backbone of Lola's menu. Simplicity, purity and the rough-hewn edginess of rustic flavors dominate. "I'm not trying to fool people," Fader said. "Or stump them. I'm just trying to cook good food."