Partly because of my East Coast sensibilities that seem to align well with Levinger's and partly because of the menu's universal, comfort-food appeal, Lola's struck a chord with me right away. I've visited four times in less than two weeks. It has retained the Downtowner's casual attitude and pricing, as well as a lot of its furniture, but has added a more versatile kitchen, expanded liquor license and decorative and structural changes with an eye toward an evening and late-night dining scene.
For a small space, there's a lot going on. In addition to the Downtowner's original set-up of high bar tables and seating along the windows, there's now an Old-Tymey piano in the far corner with a TV hovering above, a tiny lounge with a couch and coffee table by the breezeway entrance, and a full L-shaped bar next to the kitchen. (I love the sheer lunacy of the requisite "No Minors" sign that applies only to the bar stools themselves and the foot or so between them and the safe "dining" area. Thanks for looking out for the kids, OLCC.)
The food at Lola's is wholly unpretentious, but not simplistic. It is comfort food, yes, but the kind you would find in an eating town like New York, New Orleans or Philadelphia, where the locals wouldn't stand for any skimping on flavor. Sandwiches like the Green Chili Pulled Pork Dip ($8) and entrees like a Smoked Cheddar Waffle with chorizo cheese sauce, a fried egg, salsa and sour cream ($7) epitomize Lola's style. Combinations are interesting but accessible, leaving the diner hard pressed to choose.
Among the sandwiches, the Lola's Philly ($8) stands out. By default, you get the authentic version, thin sliced beef with onions and peppers smothered in cheeze whiz, but you can sub provolone or white American if processed cheese food isn't really your thing. The classic Grilled Cheesy served with a cup of zesty roasted tomato soup ($7), king of the comfort foods, is another great option. I loved the Lola's Buffalo "No Bean" Chili ($4/$6). It was sort of like a bowl of the best sloppy joe filling you've ever had topped with cheese and green onions. You can also try it in the form of a Buffalo Chili Dog ($7) if that bowl of meat isn't enough meat for you.
Entrees and meal-size salads are equally satisfying. A chicken Caesar ($9 lunch, $11 entrée) on one visit was tasty and evenly coated in a creamy, garlicky house Caesar dressing. The pork in the Pulled Pork Quesadilla ($8.50) with corn salsa and sour cream had great flavor. And the Cajun Mac ($8 lunch, 10 entrée) with Andouille sausage, shrimp and the southern holy trinity (peppers, onions and celery), one of four mac options, was rich and well executed, though the Andouille itself could have had more of a kick to it.
Finish it all off with one of Lola's signature red velvet cupcakes ($3). The candy hearts on top of each one, small personal touches in every corner and notes from Lola, Amy Levinger's bulldog for which the place was named, have already transformed the space for me from an old to a new favorite.
852 NW Brooks St., 508-4533
Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m. - close