Lolita Reboot: 10 Things We Learned in 10 Years on 13th Street

By Danya Henninger  |  April 2, 2014
Credit: Danya Henninger

In the coming weeks, Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran will reopen the doors to Lolita, ushering in a new, liquor-licensed era for the modern Mexican they launched in 2004. The intervening decade has been a successful one - the pair now own and operate seven Midtown Village businesses, with more on the way. We had a chance to catch up with the busy couple and discuss their unique experience. We distilled our talk into 10 things the duo learned in 10 years on 13th Street.

1) Just do it. “People think we’re so smart [to have opened on 13th Street back then], but really we had no idea,” says Turney, laughing. She and Safran were looking around for a location - Rittenhouse and Old City were the hot spots, but unaffordable - and they stumbled upon Tony Goldman’s plan to revitalize 13th Street. Safran had experienced his development touch first hand when she worked in Miami Beach, so they took a gamble and launched Open House, followed soon after by Lolita.

2) Once you do it, you gotta work. All. The. Time. “People always ask us ‘how do you manage it all,’” Turney says, but there’s no secret besides dedication. Safran is thrilled about the new space being renovated above Barbuzzo, because it will house her first actual office. “It will be really nice to get all the files out of our apartment.”

3) Good people are key. Aside from hard work, the other essential factor in running several businesses is finding good staff, and it’s somewhat a self-selecting process. “When you put people in situations where they have to take responsibility, like creating a menu or managing a restaurant, the cream will rise to the top,” Safran explains. Once you know who your go-to folks are, make sure they’re challenged but happy, so they’ll want stick around.

4) Details aren’t as important as concept. When pitching the idea for Lolita to Goldman and his partners, Safran and Turney didn’t lay out any details, mostly because they didn’t know exactly what they were going to do. Instead, Marcie used her art school skills to lay out several boards - patterns, textures, clippings from magazines - that portrayed the feel of the space. “They liked it,” she remembers. “They told Capogiro what we were doing in order to convince them to open here, and on the other side, they told us Capogiro was coming here.”

5) Be original. Presenting a concept worked because that concept was original - no one was doing modern Mexican in Philadelphia at the time. “What are you doing that someone else is not, that is the key,” says Safran, noting that even though El Vez is right across the street from Lolita, the two spots are very different.


6) Having restaurants as neighbors is good (even if they serve similar cuisine). Just before opening Lolita, when they were trying raise enough money to launch, Marcie and Val had a minor scare. “A friend of mine ran over to the kitchen where I was cooking at the time,” Turney recalls, “and dropped a bomb: ‘I just found out what Stephen Starr is opening on 13th Street,’ she said. ‘Mexican!’”

After a short “oh my God” moment, the duo realized it wasn’t a problem. “We’re the little guy, they’re the big guy, and that’s fine,” Marcie says. When there was a wait at Lolita - which there was from almost the start - they would send folks to El Vez to get a drink, then call them back when the table was ready. When Barbuzzo opened, a Starr Restaurant manager came in to offer congratulations and describe how it made the whole block stronger, for all the businesses.

7) Center City neighborhoods are hard to beat. Having all those restaurants next to each other, combined with new retail, makes a neighborhood into a destination, one that draws hundreds or thousands of people each day. Tourists and conventioneers now flock to Midtown Village, without any advertising on the part of the business owners. “To be able to have restaurants that are busy all the time - Monday night, Tuesday lunch, Sunday late night - that’s amazing.”

Would Turney and Safran ever open in a different neighborhood? Possibly, because of one thing. “Eventually we want to be able to own the building, and we can’t afford that here,” Safran says, adding, “Still, it’s hard to not want to be in this neighborhood.”

8) Restaurants develop personalities. There’s already another 13th Street restaurant in the works - in the former Fish/Rhino Bar/Bump space at the corner of Locust. Whatever it ends up being, it will be unique, though it’s not always easy to keep everything compartmentalized. “I have recipes organized in files of Spanish, American, Italian American, Mediterranean,” Turney says, “but I still get mixed up sometimes with all the different kitchens.” Confusion doesn’t last long, because each has its own traits. Here’s the family portrait the two came up with for us:

Lolita - Happy, outgoing party gal
Jamonera - Sophisticated older sister who spent time living in Europe
Barbuzzo - Fun, smart and brash older brother
Little Nonna’s - Cozy and welcoming grandma


9) Inspiration comes from experience. Where do the ideas for all of these different personalities come from? Traveling is a huge help, combined with good old brainstorming. After returning from a home show (for Open House) in Chicago, the duo realized they had eaten Mexican unlike any found in Philly, and ideas piled on from there. “I remember being in the shower and shouting out ideas for margarita mixes,” Turney says.

Visits to other countries also inform the concepts, but it’s not about replicating dishes. “It’s more about the romance,” Safran muses. “If Marcie made the exact rice and beans that wowed us on the street in Oaxaca, it wouldn’t taste the same. It was the experience of it. That’s what we try to bring back.” Simplicity is a positive. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of serving tacos. But we’ve got a tortilla press, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

10) BYO isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Along with fresh tortilla tacos, the whole menu at Lolita will be new (save for Turney’s vaunted carne asada), and items will actually be less expensive than before. Thank booze for that. “If I were to do it again, I probably would have gotten a liquor license at the start,” says Val. “People say they like BYOs, but I’ve turned away so many potential customers because we didn’t have drinks. Or take credit cards.” The fees for credit cards and reservations are much easier to absorb if you serve liquor. “When we opened Barbuzzo, we were like, wow, we can make the food more affordable, even with great drink prices! And that is exactly what’s about to happen at Lolita.”