Guests at Lola’s can’t ignore the skeletons hanging in the Mexican restaurant on Long Beach’s Retro Row. You’ll see dead people at Lola’s. You’ll even dine next to them.
Outside, a giant white skull sports a flower over its temple. The painted wood-cutout skull grins over the dark, rust-colored stucco restaurant storefront on Fourth Street and Cherry Avenue.
Inside, Jesus stretches across a two-foot-tall, pink, wooden crucifix suspended over a stack of water glasses. Above the bar, 12-inch lady skeleton dolls pose in wide-brimmed hats. Tiny, round (presumably bony) hips poke out from the blue and rose floor-length gowns.
A matador skeleton stands ready for his next bullfight in a print on the opposite wall.
“What’s with all the dead stuff? Why is it so scary in here?”customers will ask restaurant co-owner Brenda Rivera.
“They are freaked [out] by it because they don’t really understand it,” Rivera acknowledges.
A few years ago, Rivera agreed to an interview to explain the significance of the décor. She spoke loudly above the din of forks scraping the last morsel of enchiladas off plates, the ping of ice cubes floating in Sangria goblets and the diners’ constant chatter which echoed over tiled floor.
The décor, which feels a little like the exuberance of Mardis Gras blended with Halloween, celebrates El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Starting at midnight on Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, the holiday is observed by many families in Mexico, including Rivera’s relatives in Guadalajara. Those who celebrate the special day honor the dead, often with festivities that include building an altar in the home or holding a vigil. Many bring food to gravesites. Rivera recalled how her own family during this holiday traditionally would spend time remembering their loved ones in the cemeteries in Mexico.
“So instead of mourning, you celebrate all the good memories of people who have passed. That’s why the skulls are usually happy,” Rivera said. “It’s never scary.”
Unlike the American version of Halloween, Dia de los Muertos isn’t meant to be creepy. At the restaurant, skulls and crucifixes dominate nearly every corner, but the place lacks a sinister tone. Painted gold swirls dance over mustard-yellow and flame-colored walls. Shiny metal stars dangle from the ceiling.
And then there are the dead men and women who have taken on skeletal form. They may have shed their skin, but they still seem…natural.
On one giant canvas, a bony face smiles beneath a sombrero. He slings a rifle over a shoulder.
It might make sense. Why would the dead be doing anything differently on the eternity side, even if they did lack flesh and vital organs?
The owners rejected the usual ranch décor of Mexican restaurants and decided to add their personal style, Rivera said, even if it wasn’t going to be understood. She has her co-owner’s sister to thank for the massive number of skulls and skeletons. She had been collecting Dia de Los Muertos memorabilia for years.
The restaurant’s owners also thought about improvements to their exterior surroundings that had less to do with the fall holiday and more to do aesthetic appeal. Two years ago, they and 2nd District Councilmember Suja Lowenthal celebrated the installation of the city’s first “parklet,” an outdoor landscaped area that extends the sidewalk into the street. In front of the restaurant, patrons can dine al fresco in space which used to be reserved for parking. The choice of constructing a parklet adds a little decorative flair to an urban streetscape, offering character along a street that boasts vintage and thrift shops among other specialty shops.
According to a media release from the councilmember’s office, this parklet was the first of its kind in Southern California. San Francisco had initiated a parklet program years ago.
Restaurant co-owner Luis Navarro says that the idea to put a parklet in front of the restaurant was proposed to them by City officials. He says that the contract that they have with the City requires the owners to take charge of the cost to build, maintain and insure the parklet. The parklet installation was part of a pilot program that lasted 12 months. The City leases out the space to the restaurant on an annual basis.
“It was really a roll of the dice,” Navarro said in a phone interview this week, acknowledging that the community could have rejected the changes to the outdoor sidewalk area. Navarro said that the restaurant invested $25,000. The change is permanent now, and he says that the investment in a parklet offered an economic benefit. With the increased number of diners coming over to enjoy the outdoor setting, the owners were able to hire more staff.
“Even though it was a gamble at first,” Navarro added, “it’s just been a success story for us.”
The Navarro and Rivera families won’t keep all of the traditions of Dia de los Muertos, even though at this time of the year they have a special connection to the holiday. Luis Navarro’s mother, Lola Navarro, passed away in 2010. They have relatives in Mexico who will make a traditional altar for her, and her son says that he keeps in touch with them through social media.
Lola’s fingerprints are all over the restaurant named after her. She helped decorate the restaurant with Luis’ sister, and Lola is responsible for many of the dishes on the menu. For Dia de los Muertos, Navarro says that he and his family will likely remember her by making the dishes his mother loved. Lola’s favorite dish is a chile relleno, and Navarro says he’ll also make chile en nogadas, a chile stuffed with sautéed with pine nuts, peaches, pears, apples and raisins, topped with a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranates.
The dead won’t likely mind that the holiday won’t be fully observed in the traditional manner, especially if the owners are willing to share their meal. ß