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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Breaking Point: Several restaurants have tried to crack this tough location on the West Side.

Mixed Messages

In which brunch on the West Side becomes a meditation on the culinary dark side of aspiring eateries that can't find their mark

By Christina Waters

Why some restaurants seem to lead charmed lives--packed day and night, referred to in riffs of praise and word-of-mouth recommendation--is one of the bona fide mysteries of life, right up there with how airplanes stay airborne and why candlelight kindles romance.

But why other restaurants fail to find their niche, why they disappoint their patrons and ultimately waste the public's time and money is not so mysterious. Take restaurants that sprout up on what professionals call "cursed locations." These can be busy street corners with no visible ambience. Or spots that resist ease of access or lack user-friendly parking. I thought of this last week as Jack and I attempted to negotiate a parking spot at Cafe Lola, whose weekend brunch attracted our big weekend appetites.

Another issue that seems to separate those dining houses that stick around from those that disappear is the question of clientele. Just who is this restaurant aiming to attract? Planting itself in the ill-fated shoes of Marcello's, the year-old Cafe Lola announced itself as student friendly. The corner of Mission and Bay is prime territory for the UCSC-bound. But surely the glamorous lighting, hand-crafted interior metalwork, upholstered chairs and designer menu sent another message.

OK, so it wasn't a student-only destination. Fine. But why no tablecloths to match the carefully selected furniture? (Never mind other gnawing questions, such as why no eye-refreshing plants, especially around the patio to mask the Mission Street traffic and signage?) Small paintings too disregarded to even be well lit do little to add cheer to a dining room dominated by a fortress of orange lacquered metalwork.

Many a restaurant has succeeded even without seamless décor, sheerly on the vivacity and skill of staff and management, people whose commitment to their work and love for the food translates into a warm welcome and attention to detail. Here, however, an air of neglect and half-heartedness always seems to infiltrate our meals.

But here was an opportunity to set all right. Brunch beckoned. Not the offer of coffee, however, which our excessively casual wait person seemed to feel was not part of the brunch program. Jack's coffee arrived eventually--tasting of multiple reheatings--and my cappuccino was barely warm. OK, admittedly coffee isn't the answer to world peace, but if it's brunch you're serving you might do well to accentuate such basics as hot, fresh, briskly served coffee.

Six circling flies kept us company as we waited for our generously portioned main plates to arrive. Why did no one pay attention to the murky lighting, we wondered? Merely raising the attractive window screen might have let in some mood-lifting brightness.

Back to the food. The current menu offers a variety of pizzas, sandwiches and traditional breakfast classics. So I was looking forward to my order of three large pancakes, dotted with "seasonal fruit" consisting of six blackberries and two small slices of strawberry ($5.50). Had the pancakes contained even a rumor of flavor, I would have been content. They did not. Jack's scrambled egg platter came with excellent home-fried potatoes, tepid, tasteless eggs and delicious, commercial sausages.

One thing that's not optional in the restaurant biz is the quality of the food. If you've got a few great dishes, signature items that create a surge toward your doorstep, patrons will (in my experience) forgive awkward furniture, listless service, even high prices. But without some real love, care and flair in the kitchen, it's hard to overcome conflicting décor messages, tepid delivery and flavorless food.

Decide what you want to do--open a diner, or open only for breakfast and lunch, or whatever--and stick to it. People don't like to be confused. A well-trained staff and a smartly designed menu of surefire culinary hits repay their investment far more than self-indulgent light fixtures. Trying to be all things to all possible consumer groups often just results in an establishment becoming nothing in particular to not many people. And if the management isn't even having any fun, then what's the point?

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From the August 13-20, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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