Originally published by Maine Magazine in March 2015
It is impossible to deny the sensory delight that one experiences upon first stepping through the doors of Lolita Vinoteca & Asador on Munjoy Hill. Warm, pungent aromas of clams and garlic roasting in the wood oven, which is constantly tended to by diligent cooks, is prevalent even amidst the din of patrons stationed up and down the long zinc bar on a busy night. Much of the menu is inspired by the ancient spice routes of Venice, successfully marrying flavors from the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East, resulting in dishes like Burrata with lemon zest and Aleppo chili oil on toast, or cured Spanish sardines augmented with harissa. Every detail is seen to, from the Emiliomiti meat slicer that is built to the specifications of vintage models from the early 20th century, to a delicate network of light fixtures that contribute to the modern feel of the dining room.
Yet, under all of this, is a very simple philosophy.
“The whole project has been driven by our desire to build a family life around a restaurant, rather than going the opposite direction,” says Guy Hernandez.
Guy owns Lolita along with his wife, Stella, and their partner and marketing expert, Neil Reiter. His concept of the merging of family and work rings true when he tells me about the morning spent with his eight-year-old son, Antonio. Antonio has taken to the nuances of the business in a manner that is well beyond his years, absorbing everything he has seen after spending countless hours in both the now-shuttered Bar Lola and Lolita, which he in turn applies to a venture of his own.
“He’s built a restaurant in the living room called El Shellos Mua (loosely inspired by El Bulli). Each day he creates a new menu,” Guy tells me, “which includes everything from rib eye with pommes Anna to quail eggs and whole branzini.” Antonio even has a wine list; that morning he presented the day’s offerings to his dad. “I explained that it was too early for that and ordered lemonade. I was told that the lemonade was nine dollars, and when I complained that the price was quite steep, especially compared to the five-dollar glasses of wine, his response was ‘we make the lemonade in-house,’” says Guy.
It is worth noting that all the food at Antonio’s restaurant is made of cut-out drawings that he creates, and Guy points out that there is great care put into making sure each menu item is spelled correctly. Stella also informs me that the original space for the eatery was Antonio’s bedroom, but he has expanded to the living room to “accommodate more baking.”
Antonio’s efforts stem from, and have reinforced, an intense affinity for both food and process. Guy tells me about going to Harbor Fish Market to pick up ingredients for dinner, and Antonio instructing the fishmonger: “We will take the sardines and I will clean them myself, please.” Antonio’s natural talent for the arts and attention to detail reflect the interests and standards of his parents, and the manner in which they have run their operation from day one.
Guy describes their routine as “typical in its atypical-ness.” The family is constantly balancing personal life with the hectic pace of owning and operating a successful restaurant. I worked for Stella and Guy at their first venture, Bar Lola, back when its doors opened in 2006—about 6 months before the arrival of Antonio, whom they adopted from the Philippines. It has been all about balance ever since.
I meet up with the Hernandezes on a Friday, which is generally the busiest day of the week, especially given that the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Whoever takes Antonio to school tends to come in first; today that is Guy. He arrives around 9 a.m. along with one of his cooks, who begins to prep for the day and starts up the gorgeous, custom-designed wood-fired oven, which Guy refers to as a, “Box of fire,” that is the source of much of Lolita’s goodness.
As the kitchen whirs to life, Stella arrives. Their home is conveniently located about two blocks away, which was not an accident. Citing a passage from Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table, she speaks to the benefits of owning a business that does not involve a commute—primarily because one is always ready and able to put out a fire at a moment’s notice.
Next-door, in the old Bar Lola space, is the Hilltop Coffee shop, a longtime neighborhood staple on the hill that was purchased by Guy and Stella when it still occupied Lolita’s current home. By moving it across the street, they have managed to preserve the eclectic character of the shop, which is a product of it’s patrons, while imparting considerably more leg room, as well as updated equipment. The move made particular sense to Guy, who insists that, “To me, the dining room at Bar Lola always felt more like a place to kick back, set up my laptop, and drink coffee at a leisurely pace.”
Above the coffee shop is Stella’s office, a space that has allowed her day to become far more structured in regard to administrative duties. She also expresses relief that they have finally hired someone to manage Hilltop, considering that it’s open for 13 hours a day, seven days a week.
Having all of these factors in place grants her the luxury of being able to spend a lot more time developing and maintaining the wine list, a process that she greatly enjoys. Stella can now be more involved with her vendors, which allows for staying abreast of special, hard-to-find bottles when they come around. There is also the wine fridge, an addition since Bar Lola, allowing for temperature control—especially crucial when serving more delicate reds like cru Beaujolais. All in all, she has compiled what is easily one the most thoughtful wine selections in the state.
As lunch patrons begin to filter in, Guy has returned and is working on prep while formulating specials. He is momentarily distracted when a salesman comes through the door, hawking high-quality maraschino cherries, but he isn’t bothered.
“That’s what is so great about the scheme of this kitchen,” he says, “It’s designed to allow us to handle prep for dinner throughout the day while having complete visibility of what’s happening with the lunch business.”
This transition of customers, as a result of staying open for business straight through the day, can be quite varied. It is, as I have found, one of the very few places that I can get a properly made gin fizz in the early afternoon, and at the same time not feel like I’m imposing or extending a server’s shift against their will. This, inevitably, leads to ordering snacks, perhaps a bit of pork rillettes or a few slices of Jamon Iberico, to compliment my beverage(s). In the evening the menu is conducive to sharing, whether it be the splendor of the Porterhouse Bistecca for three, accompanied by a magnum of equally impressive red wine, or a sampling of treats out of the wood oven, such as duckfat roasted potatoes with radicchio and delicately spiced yogurt. It is truly a restaurant designed to accommodate and impressive variety of guest, and more importantly their ever-changing moods.
The mood in the dining room, aided by the heat emanating from the oven, is quite tranquil today. Stella is in and out; she compares herself to Kramer from Seinfeld, at least in this regard. We take time to chat about her transitions as a restaurant owner, and she tells me that the most valuable lesson she has learned is how to allocate her energy in an effective manner.
“As I get older, the difference is that I have become more concerned with who I’m making happy, rather than who I’m disappointing, if that makes sense.” She goes on to stress the importance of her staff, explaining the significance of allowing the restaurant to evolve as a family in its own way, rather than obsessively seeking a pre-set objective.
Equally important in this changeover has been partner Neil Reiter, who met Stella and Guy six years ago when he became their landlord for the Hilltop Coffee Shop. He recalls the efficiency with which they ran their businesses, and although he had been overseeing the Reiter Marketing Group, and does to this day, his status as a self-proclaimed “food-psycho” drew him to the restaurant industry.
When he initially approached Guy and Stella about collaborating on a venture, their response was, “Not now, but perhaps in the future.” Reiter received a call from them about two years ago with the message, “Now’s the time.”
Right from the beginning, from Guy’s very first sample menu for the new concept, Reiter tells me that their interests were “100 percent aligned.” Reiter’s wife, Lauren, assumed the architectural responsibilities. Starting with what Reiter described as “867 feet of plain vanilla,” she transformed the space to accommodate 30 seats, installing custom cabinetwork as well as lighting fabricated by local artisans. The entire room is enveloped in rich, warm colors, and modern art complements the lighting fixtures.
While collaborating with Guy on the menu, Reiter incorporated dishes that have been staples in his family for years. His daughter, Charlotte, had created a cookbook entitled Cooking with my Father as a high school independent study project. Her book influenced several of Lolita’s most well known dishes, such as squid ink pasta with bottarga and torchino with ’nduja, and peas. Reiter can also be found working the floor during service on occasion, and continues to be proud of what Lolita has become. “Even though members of the Reiter family are not in the restaurant on a regular basis, there is a lot of Reiter DNA floating around the establishment,” he says.
At this point in the afternoon, after printing out menus for the evening, Stella leaves to pick up Antonio, and I spend time in the kitchen with Guy as he rolls out gnocchi for dinner service. We talk about the elements of a great dining experience, which, at the end of the day, have as much to do with the setting and company as they do with the food. He speaks about working in the kitchen at the beginning of his career and how that time shaped him as a cook, which in turn affects the way he manages his crew.
“It’s really all about setting everyone up for success. As a small business owner you actually work for your employees—give them the tools to do their job well and you will benefit at the end of the day.” He makes a point to tell me that everyone takes turns with the harrowing duties of cleaning the hood and the grease trap. “Sometimes that’s how we measure time going by.”
Around 3 p.m. the servers start filtering in, cheerfully and efficiently going about their sidework. Everyone seems happy to see one another, yet they stay focused on the tasks at hand. Stella appears after meeting Antonio’s babysitter, and takes a moment to respond to a text from a friend, who is quizzing her on grand cru vineyards in Chablis. Everyone sits down while Guy conducts the pre-meal session, occasionally interrupted by calls to inquire about reservations (which are accepted, although much of the seating is kept open for walk-ins). He goes over the current selections “From the slicer,” an ever changing selection of cured meats, while detailing more substantial dishes, like Toulouse-style Cassoulet with the classical inclusion of duck confit, garlicky pork sausage, and Tarbais beans.
Throughout dinner service Stella mans the floor, playing the roles of manager and sommelier, while Guy works the pass. At the end of the night, Stella leaves slightly earlier to relieve the babysitter, followed shortly after by Guy.
One of the elements I find most enjoyable about spending the day with Guy and Stella is seeing their evolution as both restaurateurs and parents, after working for them so long ago. I admire the manner in which they have adapted to the times by opening Lolita. Stella sums it all up by telling me, “It’s important to find a balance. Family needs to remain a priority, and we have been happy to find that we can comfortably achieve this.”
90 Congress Street | Portland | (207) 775-5652 | Lolita-portland.com