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  • Writer's pictureKathie Scalf

No Sorrows at Female-Founded Lola

On a recent Google rabbit hole exploration during a rather boring doctor’s appointment wait back home in Tri-Cities, I was surprised to learn the origin of the name Lola comes from a Spanish phrase meaning “sorrows.” More specifically, it was shortened from the name “Dolores”, derived from a Spanish title assigned to the Virgin Mary, “Nuestra Senora de los Dolores” or “Our Lady of Sorrows.” That sounded pretty depressing for a seemingly fun and effervescent name until I read further the title is intended to convey the message that sorrow in life is necessary to experience joy. This is a concept I happen to be quite schooled on, and a sudden hunger pain sealed the deal on my next stop- lunch at Café Lola in Johnson City!

Another one of Johnson City’s long-standing fine dining establishments, I was taken aback when I realized Café Lola opened nearly 20 years ago in 2006. I vividly recall my first visit there with a friend in wine sales within weeks of their grand opening. At that time I was barely 21, still enrolled in college and hadn’t even declared a major. Considering my upbringing in neighboring Elizabethton, who had only received their first Applebee’s in 2005, this was the fanciest restaurant I’d ever seen firsthand. The concept of a European-style bistro and wine bar was still a fairly foreign concept to this region tucked away in the mountains and raised on gravy, cornbread and anything fried. Lola was a much-needed glimpse into cultures beyond our small corner of the world, and a breath of fresh air amongst the rows of corporate-run chain eateries lining each side of Roan Street for miles.

Much of Café Lola’s melting pot of influences stems from its dynamic management. On top of being one of the area’s premier eateries, Lola has the distinction of being a female owned and operated establishment. Owner Tara and Chef Michelle have managed to curate and maintain both a menu and dining space that has withstood the test of time as well as a recession, a global pandemic and the cutthroat nature of the restaurant industry in general. This is quite the accomplishment for any business, but especially for women in an area that is so heavily dominated by men. These two women with such different backgrounds - Tara’s being Thai and Cantonese via New York, Michelle’s being truly Southern by way of Tennessee and New Orleans – found the perfect balance of flavors and flair that have made Lola intimate and interesting, cozy and creative, sexy and relaxed.

The restaurant itself is split into 2 spaces with different atmospheres but ultimately flow in a way that doesn’t feel disjointed. The main dining room is definitely more of a corner bistro, with lively patterned wallpaper, fresh flowers and ample windows for lots of natural light elements. Once you slip through the speakeasy door into the martini room, which was added a few years after their opening, you’re transported into a place a bit more seductive, secluded and sexy. It has an air of mystery and hints at burlesque, with deep red wallpaper, black light fixtures, and leather couches. The same menus and dining options are offered on both sides, but it’s nice to have different vibes to choose from depending on the tone of the evening.

I love that Lola is open for both lunch and dinner, offering a generous selection of soups, sandwiches, salads and comfort food by day, and more elevated options from land and sea in the evening in addition to their daytime favorites. When I stopped for lunch, I couldn’t decide what sounded best, so I went with a soup/panini combo. Their tomato soup is one of my favorites, and the golden-brown crust of my panini was perfect for dipping. Being me, I simply had to add a glass of wine, as their list has evolved quite nicely over the years and has some real gems at incredible price-points. The Kermit Lynch Languedoc Rouge was a perfect pairing for my heavier selection of cream based bisque and buttered chicken panini, and at just $9 a glass I was almost tempted to spring for the bottle to save for later. My top picks on the white wine list would be Codorniu Cava if you’re looking for something bright and bubbly to pair with a wide variety of flavors or celebration, and Cave de Lugny, Macon Village Chardonnay for anything fish, salad or light chicken. The red wine list is really where Café Lola shines however. In addition to the Kermit Lynch selection, they have Clos la Coutale Cahors, which is French malbec and if you’re a longtime reader of this column you might recall this is one of my all-time favorite wine regions. The also have Trefethen by the bottle, which is one of my favorite bottles of Napa Cab and its incredibly reasonably priced at $72. (For reference, at the fine dining steakhouse I worked at in Nashville, we sold Trefethen all day long at $30 a glass.) Another long-standing tradition at Lola is their daily sangria, either white or red and adjusted for seasonal fruits and flavors, which is also offered as part of their “Free Flow” night on Tuesday, where you can get unlimited tapas and sangrias for a set price during set hours. It’s a fantastic deal and the perfect way to unwind after work with friends and loved ones.

If I were picking my dream meal from Lola, I would always start with their marinated mushrooms. This is one of their dishes that never leaves the menu and for good reason. Bathing in a mixture of lemon, garlic and parsley and served with a side of grilled bread, I could honestly eat 2 of these as a meal. Pair your mushrooms with a glass of Cava, and have your server go ahead and open a bottle of Trefethen to breathe on the table while you enjoy your appetizer. The menus change seasonally, but right now the roasted prime rib with haricots verts and garlic mashed potatoes would be outstanding with that big, bold bottle of Napa Cab. Being a fattier cut of meat, it would perfectly balance the tannin of the wine and allow the flavors to linger on your tongue long after you’ve cleaned your plate. Lola has a beautiful rotating selection of desserts, but I would opt for my sweets in liquid form and choose a delicious libation from their martini list. A Tiramisu martini or house-made amaretto makes for a perfect happy ending. Café Lola offers a spirits book filled with classic and signature cocktails extending beyond their dessert martinis, some of the most unique being their multiple variations of a Moscow mule. If you’re not in the mood for a full dinner, post up in the martini room and explore their twists on old favorites.

Café Lola is a must-stop each time I’m in town, and whether you’re a seasoned regular or a first-timer, you’re sure to leave with no sorrows at this Johnson City treasure.


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