Restaurants in Bondi don’t look like Lola’s. With the exception of a few standouts, we’ve all come to expect a certain look from the eateries that line the friskiest of Sydney’s beaches: blond-wood floors, rattan everything, and whitewashed walls.

Not so at Lola’s Level 1, the much-anticipated new opening from hospo vets Marco Ambrosino (Fratelli Paradiso, 10 William St) and Manny Spinola (Tea Room QVB). Lola’s, which occupies the old Panama House site, was all set to open earlier this year when the lockdown hit. The delay has been frustrating (and expensive) but Lola’s has finally opened – and she’s an absolute knockout.

“There’s enough bright colours and light wood in Bondi, and it suits Bondi,” Ambrosino tells Broadsheet. “But we really focused on the comfort factor. I want people to come here, settle in and stay for a long time.”

And, judging by Ambrosino’s other venues, chances are they will. But Lola’s is not “Fratelli Paradiso goes to the seaside”. It’s a whole new beast, and very much Ambrosino and Spinola’s venture (Ambrosino still remains involved in his other venues). Still, comparisons will be made (moody lighting, excellent service, Mediterranean food) and if we must do it, then we will say just this: as with Ambrosino’s other venues, Lola’s feels like it’s always been around and always will be.

The deep, 94-seat space was designed by H&E Architects (Chiswick, Barangaroo House) and is split across an elevated, elegant bar, a dining room and a balcony. There are mirrored arches in the walls recalling the porticos and doorways of the Mediterranean, and a colour palette of deep blue to bring the colours of the ocean inside. The dining room has herringbone wooden floors, dark wood Thonet chairs, terracotta sconces and deep-blue banquettes. Outside on the terrace, there are terrazzo floors and that million-buck view.

“My vision was to do something Mediterranean,” Spinola says. “We wanted something moody and intimate with a real bar focus. We all know that winter can be hard in Bondi, and part of creating a venue that’s warm and welcoming is that it feels great when it’s overcast and wet outside.”

The cocktail list showcases Lola’s European-Latin flair (no Espresso Martinis) and elevates Australian craft spirits and spins on old classics. The drinks don’t have names and are instead listed by their ingredients. If you want to know how they’re made, seek out venue manager Luca Capecchi to explain the alchemy behind each drink – he’s a food-and-bev Wikipedia on legs. There is a take on a Tommy’s on the rocks, made with a fat wash of coconut oil and tequila, habanero sous-vide in agave nectar, fresh lime and a floral twist of makrut lime leaf. Lola’s version of a Pisco Sour incorporates macerated yerba maté (a herbal tea sometimes taken for altitude sickness) and citrus juice, and is finished with a few drops of Fernet-Branca.

The wine list is arranged around boutique Mediterranean drops and some from Australian regions, and was compiled by sommeliers Louis West (ex-Bentley Restaurant Group) and Mon Ditbunjong (ex-Cumulus Inc, Dear Sainte Eloise, Ragazzi). “They’re both training to be masters and are complete wine nerds,” says Spinola.

Presiding over the kitchen is rising star Paula Pantano, who brings a background in five-star hotels (Crown Sydney, Four Seasons) and a “wealth of knowledge and passion”, Ambrosino says. Pantano’s menu is split into sections: oysters, small plates, “off the plancha”, larger plates and desserts. Oysters are taken very seriously, with three to four types always on the menu; they are shucked at the bar and served natural, with a mignonette, or with a vermouth granita.

Among the small plates is a milky white coil of handmade burrata swimming in vibrant green basil oil and a cold-pressed citrus gel. Pan tumaca, a Catalan dish of bread and tomatoes, is a highlight – the sourdough is charred over the grill and dressed with hojiblanca extra-virgin olive oil and macerated tomatoes. Add jamon iberico to make this perfectly simple dish even heartier.

Off the plancha, octopus with charred eggplant and tahini merges the flavours of Portugal, Lebanon, Greece and southern Italy. It’s a burly dish and smells like walking through a Lisbon street market. And Lola’s is relaxed enough that you can eat it the way it should be eaten – with your hands.

Fritto misto comes with Pantano’s signature sauce: a salsa verde made with anchovies and pipparas (peppers). The marriage of the two, and what Capecchi calls the “superb alchemy of the piparras”, is the perfect balance of fried food and acidity. The fish of the day (when Broadsheet visited, snapper from the Bay of Plenty) is Greek influenced: butterflied, cooked on charcoal and topped with ribbons of kohlrabi slaw dressed in tomato water. It looks like it jumped out of the sea, split in two and landed on the plate (via the grill). For dessert, a wattleseed ricotta cannolo with a ristretto is an ideal last stop on this Mediterranean voyage.

Spinola and Ambrosino are planning to be open 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and hope people will come to think of Lola’s as “the place that’s always open”.

“We want to be a locals’ restaurant. Come here for a drink one day, a snack after the beach, dinner with the family, or a special occasion,” says Ambrosino.

They are also hoping Lola’s will bring a new kind of clientele to the beachside suburb. “Bondi is anchored by some great restaurants,” Ambrosino says. “We want it to become a place where people come to eat, not just to swim. People get Ubers to Potts Point and Darlinghurst for lunch or dinner. Get an Uber to Bondi!”

Lola’s Level 1
Level 1, 180–186 Campbell Parade, Bondi
(02) 8294 0927

Hours:
Daily 12pm–10pm

lolaslevel1.com.au
@lolaslevel1