Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Whatever Lola Wants…

Tania Auger’s Lola’s Lounge in Sarnia

By Cecilia Buy and Bryan Lavery

Drive down Christina Street in Sarnia, and you can’t miss it: a narrow building, with the front of its second floor covered by the outsize signage, “Lola’s Lounge” in flowing neon script, voluptuously crimson. Red is Tania Auger’s signature colour, and the owner of Lola’s has put her unmistakable stamp on every facet of her restaurant, from furnishings to food, from the window treatment to the wine list.

The bones of the old building show through. Operating continuously since the thirties, the shade of the former diner lingers. The swivel stools at the counter have been replaced with metal-framed barstools, but the curved bulkhead above the liquor shelves remains, now backlit with red neon that casts a speakeasy glow over the bottles and Tania’s collection of vintage Canadian and Italian art glass.

Down one side of the room are the original booths, seats now reupholstered, each booth with its own coat and hat rack. On the other side of the terrazzo floor (laid in diagonal stripes of light and dark), the booths have been replaced with tables and chairs. While the room seats seventy, it feels more intimate, that sense enhanced by the large coloured-glass lamps suspended over each table and a jungle of shiny sequined decorations that dangle from the ceiling, with swinging lamps over the bar. Tables are set with bread plates, cutlery and glassware, and a rainbow of cloth napkins. The upbeat music is played to be noticed and enjoyed as part of a high-energy dining experience. Even with the bright sunshine pouring through the large plate-glass window, the ambience is less of lunchtime than “afternoon at the seraglio” / fifties cocktail lounge.

Tania Auger was born a bon vivant and knew from an early age that she and the hospitality business were made for each other. She arrived in London in her late teens, charisma already flowing, to fill a vacancy at the Lamplighter Inn, working as a bartender. This was followed by stints at Howard Johnson’s and much longer stretches at John and Ingrid Blanke’s Gabrielle’s Next Door. Not long after, she became the barkeeper/doyenne at Singapore. Located downstairs from the ultra chic Asian-inspired Sorrenti’s restaurant, Singapore was an instant hit under Auger's direction. The intimate bar was an oasis of smoky cosmopolitan seduction and sophistication with an adjoining secluded back room complete with two Moorish-inspired tented booths. The bar boasted a menu of classic cocktails: stingers, manhattans, rusty nails, Rob Roys and martinis, as well as original concoctions that cemented Auger’s reputation as bartender extraordinaire. At the time, Auger was also making her name designing and handcrafting her own collection of avant-garde jewellery.

In 1988, Auger’s entrepreneurial streak continued to surface, and she leased the Ritz Hotel in Bayfield where she opened the Shark Inn. After a very successful season, the building was purchased by Joan Ivey, who bought out the lease and paved the way for Auger to return to London and transform a longtime lunch counter into the legendary 99 King. Auger’s high-energy approach, design sensibility and idiosyncratic style went a long way into helping to turn a derelict part of King Street into the restaurant mecca it has become. The restaurant and lounge eventually expanded into three buildings in the premises now occupied by the Cello Supper Club. In the second year of operation, Auger upped the ante and hired uber-chef Jacqueline “Jackie” Shantz for the long-run period.

All good things come to an end, and after a lengthy and successful run, in 1997, much to the dismay of a large and diverse clientele, the doors of 99 King were closed. Tania returned to her hometown, Sarnia, and after a brief hiatus opened a new enterprise, the tony Smoked Oyster, and a second restaurant/nightclub, Red Tango. Following the events of September 11, 2001, Sarnia, like other Canadian border cities, felt the effects on trade. The locals, sophisticated American customers, Point Edward Charity Casino’s high rollers, and the tourists along Sarnia’s stunning riverfront district stayed away in droves. Undeterred, and never one to look backwards, Auger “bit the hair of the dog” and opened Lola’s Lounge in the summer of 2002.

“When I first opened, I was trying to do funky comfort food ‘cause I still had the Red Tango. I was trying to keep the Tango as the dressy place and this as the more comfort… I finally said, ‘Okay, forget it!’ and painted the place red (gotta have red), raised the bar, and put the mirrors in,” recalls Auger. “People were mad at me for closing the Smoked Oyster. It was not easy. People wouldn’t even come. It took at least a year to get things going again.”

Seven years later, Lola’s has seen some changes and permutations in style, staff, and cuisine, but seems settled in for the long run. Giselle Dennis, Lola’s manager, has been by Auger’s side every step of the way, doing the books at 99 King, four years at The Smoked Oyster and the last seven at Lola’s.

Despite a current trend to simplicity and seasonality, Auger, who appreciates the “local” philosophy, does not follow trends, she sets them. Her menus have a distinct personality consistent with the Tania Auger brand, the imprimatur, retro-chic with a continental riff on the traditional. Hers is an anthology of rehabilitated classics like escargot forestière, crispy frogs’ legs, oysters Rockefeller, clam chowder and iceberg lettuce (but this incarnation served with beef tenderloin, blue cheese, boiled egg and avocado). It is food that is brash, sensual and sexy, food that borders on the hedonistic with big flavours. Menus denote exotic locales, diverse flavours and ingredients. The irony of items such as Mama Mia Meatballs with major mozza & baguette and Fashion Forward Cold Seafood Extravaganza reference what is both camp and kitsch.

Lola’s rack of lamb is a culinary legend with its spicy maple bourbon sauce, whose ingredients came to Auger fully formed in a dream, and Chef Shantz perfected during the 99 King years.

Auger has always paid homage to the American bar and grill sensibility and its culinary traditions, especially martinis, big 10- and 12-oz. steaks, and the freshest fish and seafood. Lola’s fresh fish is sourced locally from Purdy’s Fish Market, which is one of Southwestern Ontario’s hidden gems, operating since 1900 in Point Edward. There is also a location in Grand Bend, and Purdy’s sells its offerings at the Sarnia Farmer’s Market at the corner of Ontario and Proctor Streets on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to noon.

Turns out, you can go home again. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. And little man, little Lola wants you. Make up your mind to have no regrets. Recline yourself, resign yourself, you’re through....

Lola’s Lounge
110 Christina St. S.
Sarnia, ON
519 336-8088

Monday to Saturday: 11 a.m. to close.
Sunday: 5 p.m. to close

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