Word of Mouths 

click to enlarge food06_lede_lulus_148.jpg

Millie's Diner owner Paul Keevil and chef Steve Jurina realized that if you have more people waiting outside your restaurant than can possibly fit inside -- and this has been the case for as long as anyone can remember — maybe opening another venue would be warranted.

The most apt comparison to LuLu's is Edo's Squid. Five years ago Ed Vasaio opened his second restaurant not too far from his first, Mamma 'Zu. This younger sibling was the embodiment of many a restaurant owner's dream: If I could do it all again without the hang-ups of a quirky space that is just too damn small, this is the joint I would design from the ground up.

LuLu's is not another Millie's. It is slick and refined. Whereas Millie's has always seemed successful in spite of the space in which it's housed, LuLu's takes full advantage of a bigger space not for more tables, but for more space between them. The low-lighted room adorned with candles and a pleasing mix of alt-rock, R&B and jazz extends the experience of comfort. This is a place that seems to have been around for years. And where the common lineage of the restaurants is most apparent is in their shared values.

A friend recently asked what I look for in a restaurant, as a critic. I told him I didn't approach restaurants as a critic but as a veteran of the line and as a man who loves to eat. The food has to be good — not fancy, not fluff — just good, substantial grub, whatever the style. The food is always first, but it's not alone. And so I told my friend I frequent places where good food is served by professionals who know how crucial it is to take good care of you while also leaving you the hell alone to enjoy yourself.

LuLu's hits this mark as well as Millie's does, and at a lower price point (the menu tops out at $17). Servers know the menu and specials, the wine list, the chefs and cooks, and what can and can't be done. And they know how to pass right on by when they've come to refill glasses and you're engaged in conversation and when to place your dinner ticket so that your entrees arrive just as you've finished your appetizers.

Another comparison seems apt here, too. What LuLu's offers is a midpoint, from both a culinary and a geographic perspective, between Millie's diner chic and Comfort's down-home chic. You'll find similarities to each in LuLu's offerings. On the Comfort side, we have a huge helping of meatloaf with mushroom gravy and mashed potatoes, savory shrimp and grits, and thick pork chops atop butternut squash puree. On the Millie's side, we see international inspiration in tandoori chicken complete with dal and papadam, crab and lobster fritters with a spicy mango sauce, braised pork shanks and grilled salmon in black-bean/coconut broth with rice noodles. All are spot-on perfect winter fare, regardless of origin, and I'll be eager to see how the diminutive menu shifts into springtime.

A selection of burgers dominates the lunch menu, with many of the dinner entrees available as well — a good way to sample the menu if you've had trouble getting seated during the evening hours.

On my first visit, chef Jurina was antsy, pacing between the office and the bar, surveying a scant handful of diners. "Tell your friends!" he implored as we left. Less than a month later we showed up without reservations on a Saturday night and an unfailingly genial Keevil offered a choice — he'd pencil us in for the two-hour wait, or he'd call Millie's and get us a table. Which loops us back to the "problem" that sparked the expansion in the first place: brunch. What do you do when you're suddenly in competition with yourself for the best and busiest brunch in town? Well, if there are more people standing outside than could possibly fit inside … S

21 N. 17th St.
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 6-11 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
No smoking until 10 p.m.
Wheelchair accessible.

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