Lula Lounge is by no means new. In fact, it's offered a bright marquee along Dundas West for over ten years, and after the intermittent, and expected, struggles associated with opening a music and dance club predicated entirely on the tastes of its owners, it seems to have ironed out most of its kinks.
The team behind Lula Lounge comes from drastically varied backgrounds--Jose Ortega was previously an illustrator, Jose Nieves was a real estate agent (and Ortega's landlord), while Tracey Jenkins worked as the managing editor of a literary magazine. Ortega tells me that Lula Lounge began out of his home, with music jams and poetry slams taking over his loft.
Lula Lounge was formerly a Portuguese catering hall-slash-sports bar called Hollywood Nights. Ortega retained much of its original architecture, but he tells me he regrets covering up Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn, who were painted in green on pink walls. "If the retro thing had been as cool then, we would've kept it," Ortega says, rather than painting it to its current red and yellow colour scheme.
The purchasing deal was completed over espresso in what must have been a record five minutes and seemed at first to be a perfect match--the space was big and cheap but they quickly realized they had no idea what they were doing. "We were just making it up," Ortega tells me, "and we drew from our friends: one said 'I'll be the chef,' another, 'I'll be the bartender,' but at first it was a disaster." Perhaps it might have something to do with their screening process, with their head bartender having been selected for holding a major in Dostoevsky studies--a strange prerequisite for mixing drinks.
After going through several menu edits, they've settled on what Jenkins terms "Latin soul food," such as vegetarian tamales and chicken dressed in a bourbon barbecue sauce with traditional Latin rice. When asked when the live music venue finally began to flourish, Jenkins jokes, "Last Wednesday."
When I arrive, Latin fusion band Drumhand is performing, and there's the expected swinging of hips and tapping of toes. Dancing takes place Friday and Saturday evenings, following dinner and lessons from professional salsa teachers. As for the rest of the week, the space is open if there's a band booked, although they also frequently host fundraisers.
The space is dim, faintly lit by coloured paper lanterns and neon chandeliers. The large stage sits at the back of the dining room, and tables are lined on either side of a central corridor where the dance lessons take place. The musicians range from jazz, to electronic, to big band, with each night offering a different flavor of Latin-inspired tunes.
Lula Lounge offers an array of tropical drinks in which Havana Club rum figures heavily, martinis like the Miss Lula ($9.30)--a mix of vodka, lychee liqueur and pineapple juice-- shooters for $5.75 and specialty coffees. Mojitos ($9.30) are considered their crown jewel, but to my taste buds, the simple mojito is not as flavourful as I typically prefer. It tastes strongly of only Havana Club rum and soda water rather than striking that ideal balance between mint, sugar, and liquor, but other varieties like the Green Apple or Cherry Bomb mojitos might fare better.
Domestic beers run between $4 for Pabst and $6.45, while importeds top out at $6.45 for Guinness. A drink menu revamp is planned, although no specifics were revealed. They also offer a Sunday brunch with live music and a salsa lesson from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Look forward to Lulaworld in May, an eleven--day showcase of world music. Jenkins tells me that "for us the passion is the music, and everything else is done in support of that." For the moment, the music remains Lula's greatest draw, but as far as attractions go, you could do a lot worse.