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All The Right Moves

All The Right Moves

LIVE TO COOK : it's more than a motto for chef Michael Symon.

INCANDESCENT: Michael Symon's new lola is the centerpiece of Cleveland's East 4th street nightlife district.

GLOW WITH THE FLOW: Liz Symon designed lola's 110-seat dining room to be sexy, comfortable and urbane.

CORNERING THE MARKET: The alabaster bar, and the see-through wine room located behind it, help ensure a lively bar scene at lola.

Liz Symon

DECADENT DIGS: The handsome dining room in New York City's parea (top). In cleveland, lolita (below) offers small plates in the former Lola Bistro space.

Sure, it took Michael Symon a year longer than anticipated to move his nationally acclaimed Lola 1.7 miles from its original location in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood to new digs on downtown Cleveland's burgeoning East 4th strip. But cut the guy some slack. It was just one of three huge projects this chef/owner had to mastermind over the past couple of years.

First, in May, 2005, came the total reinvention of his original Lola Bistro and Wine Bar as Mediterranean small plates spot Lolita. Same 60-seat space, different look, completely different menu. Next came the early 2006 opening of high-end Greek restaurant Parea in New York City's Flatiron District, a pressure-packed move for which Symon put his national culinary reputation on the line. And finally, in September, 2006, came the new Lola, the expanded, made-fordowntown version of the concept that started it all 10 years ago.

Even his peers thought Symon was crazy to tackle three openings in the span of just 16 months. But look at him now. In Cleveland, Symon is the hometown hero/celebrity chef who brought one neighborhood back from the dead and is working on another. In New York, he's an overnight sensation, having earned two stars from the New York Times just a few months after showing up in town.

It took a lot more than terrific culinary skills to pull all this off, although Symon's got plenty of those. The Culinary Institute of America grad (Class of 1990) first garnered national attention when he was chosen a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 1998.

He leveraged that exposure into a hosting gig on a Food Network TV series ("The Melting Pot") that lasted fouryears. He's tangled with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto ("Battle Asparagus") and is a finalist for the James Beard Foundation's "Best Chef—Great Lakes" this year.

In Cleveland, he's equally famous for his prescient call on real estate and restaurant locations. Symon opened Lola Bistro in 1997 in the then-shaky Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont. It's a vibrant area today with plenty of fine restaurants, art galleries, coffee shops, hip retail outlets, renovated homes and new condos. But Symon was a true pioneer in his day. People who ate his kind of food and paid his kind of prices rarely ventured into Tremont then. The risk he took put the area back on the map.

It wasn't the last risk he'd take. Lola Bistro was a strong franchise, and Symon could have had his pick of downtown locations any time he chose to move it. Likewise, there would have been investors galore if he wanted to open in one of the "lifestyle centers" that dot Cleveland's upscale suburbs. But Symon waited it out until East 4th St. came calling.

Lola wasn't the first place people could eat on this street. East 4th is an urban nightlife and entertainment district situated just steps away from Cleveland's Gateway sports complex, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cleveland Indians.

It had been preceded by Pickwick & Frolic, a classy comedy club/martini bar/ restaurant installation, and the House of Blues, a busy concert venue with restaurant attached. Good as they were, these two places were barely enough to drive other development. But when Symon signed on, it suddenly got a lot easier to attract other restaurants (at least five are either open already or about to) and to lease the renovated living space in other East 4th buildings. Symon may have been a one-man tipping point/ critical mass development force in Cleveland. But he was just a wannabe chef from the Midwest when he opened 165-seat Parea in New York. It's an upscale restaurant in Manhattan's Flatiron District where chef/partner Symon gives authentic Greek food a contemporary spin.

How'd it go for him? New York Times reviewer Frank Bruni said Parea was "a fittingly arresting showcase for a sophisticated chef's effort to recast Greek cuisine by approaching it with a typically high standards, unearthing neglected traditions and finding novel assignments for commonly used ingredients." Notoriously stingy with his stars, Bruni awarded two to Parea.

Meanwhile, the meter was still running on the new Lola back in downtown Cleveland. Strict interpretation of historic building restoration standards caused some parts of the buildout to crawl. But the place finally opened last September, almost a full year behind schedule. Local critics immediately acknowledged that Lola was worth the wait. As for how the dining public received it, Symon laughs today about how timid his original financial projections turned out to be.

The new Lola is a cosmopolitan, sexy space that seats 110 the dining room, 15 at the bar and 30 in a private dining area downstairs. The menu is a citified version of the old Lola menu, "citified" meaning the addition of several steak-like items for the suit-and-tie business crowd that frequents the now-easier-to-get-to Lola.

Symon's knack for attracting and keeping talented people helped get these three restaurants off the ground. His first and best personnel decision involved marrying well. Symon's wife and business partner, Liz Symon, handles the wine program and creates the atmosphere. Her skill at developing wine lists has enabled Lola to regularly rack up Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence since 1998. As for atmosphere, the pictures that accompany this story illustrate how her formidable design skills translate into realworld restaurant settings.

The Symons' expansion push enabled them to bring in partner Doug Petkovic along the way. He now ably handles key operational aspects of the restaurant. It also meant promotions for Frank Rogers, now executive chef of Lola, Frank Harlan, executive chef of Lolita, and Jonathon Sawyer, who steers the ship as executive chef at Parea in between Symon's visits to New York.

A key addition to the new Lola team has been pastry chef Cory Barrett, who last worked at the highly respected Tribute in Detroit. He's talented, ambitious and full of surprises—kind of like his bosses. No wonder he fit right in at Lola.

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