Relaunched Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar has expanded live music offerings

Laura Boswell performs at Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar.
Laura Boswell performs at Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar. Photos provided

Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar has recently undergone some changes. The downtown State College restaurant, once known as a local jazz spot, has opened its doors to other kinds of music.

“They just had jazz before, and we’re opening it up to a bunch of different genres of music,” said Karen Sapia, general manager of Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar. “We don’t want to limit it only to jazz. We’re limited slightly in what we can offer by the space. We’re doing it on the other side of not really even a wall from people who are dining who may not necessarily want to hear anything too loud. So, that’s going to dictate the kinds of music that we choose, but I’d like it to be a bit more expansive.”

Sapia says she wants to help some local musicians get the exposure they need, and she’s even had some in-house staff sign up to play.

“(We’re looking for) things that are sort of softer, and can be suitable for dining on the other side of the partition. We’ve also had Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats a couple of times. They’re playing ... next month (Nov. 19) so we’ll see how that goes. Hopefully it won’t be too loud,” she said, laughing.

Longtime jazz musician Rick Hirsch has been a Zola staple for more than a decade. A saxophonist who has played professionally for more than 20 years, Hirsch has backed up acts including the Four Tops, the Temptations and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

During his tenure at Zola, Hirsch has played hundreds of shows for countless diners. Hirsch thinks the new approach is just the shakeup that the restaurant needed.

“(Zola) had jazz every Friday night for a good 12 or 13 years,” Hirsch said. “Last winter, the guys who started the restaurant decided it was time to sell, so they put it in on the market. The new ownership bought it in the spring and reopened. They knew they wanted to resume having music, so they’re getting back on the block with that now. They’re taking a slightly different approach to it now, though. Zola ‘1.0,’ as you might say, was only jazz and only on Friday nights from 9 to midnight. Under the new ownership, they’re taking it in a different direction. They’re trying to do something every Thursday night from 8-10. They will be doing jazz ... but not exclusively.”

Differing from other local music venues, Zola offers fine dining and a show while still maintaining its classic sophistication.

“It’s good to have some variety,” Hirsch said. “There’s quite a variety of talented musicians in the area, so it’s good to be able to provide opportunities for them to perform and to provide opportunities for people to hear them in a really nice, clean venue.”

Hirsch believes the local musical landscape is stronger than ever. He believes it has been bolstered by a glut of creative talent not previously seen in central Pennsylvania.

“I’ve been here for 16 years, and actually the change I’ve noticed the most has been that our local scene has gotten more bands of all kinds of music doing original music,” Hirsch said. “There are more venues for them to perform original music. There’s a really strong local scene of original music that has really come forward. Take a guy like Ted McCloskey. Yeah, he plays covers, but he’s also just an incredible songwriter.”

While Zola predominantly remains a restaurant, the infusion of new and different types of music is a chance to liven up the local eatery.

“Primarily, it’s a dining establishment. Our first and foremost thing we’re doing is serving food,” Sapia said. “So, if it at all conflicts with the food, then we’re not going to continue with it. We’re not going to sacrifice the people who are coming in to dine in favor of the live crowd. What we hope will open, and we’ve tried to arrange the music to be a little later, like 8-10, hopefully when most of the diners are done; what we can do is create a complement. So, say you’ve finished dinner, we’d love you to come over to the other side and maybe have a drink and enjoy some live music. We’d love to have that be a destination spot for people to come and socialize.”

Zola hosts live music every Thursday from 8-10 p.m. Zola’s website, www.zolakitchen.com, and Facebook page, www.facebook.com/zolakitchenandwinebar, has listings.