Daytonian of the Week: Emily Mendenhall

Source: Emily Mendenhall
Source: Emily Mendenhall

Even if you've been in the Oregon District for five seconds, you've likely passed Emily Mendenhall.

She's the co-owner of popular Dayton restaurant Lily's Bistro, on Fifth Street in the Oregon District. Lily's Bistro has been a focal point in the OD for a few years now, and has become known for providing fresh, fun, seasonal and eclectic American food in a classy-chic environment.

This week, Mendenhall announced that her restaurant will be expanding -- they'll be providing breakfast and lunch at local coffee chain Boston Stoker starting Jan. 20.

>>Boston Stoker to serve food from Lily's Bistro on Jan. 20

The awesome news, coupled with Mendenhall’s steady reputation for providing Dayton with some of the best food, cocktails and chicken dinners for the city, means that the Daytonian of the Week title is fitting

What do you do, and what is the most fulfilling aspect of your work?
Emily Mendenhall:
I'm the General Manager and co-owner of Lily's Bistro, a seasonal, eclectic American restaurant in the Oregon District.

The most fulfilling aspect of my work has been seeing the restaurant take the shape of what I envisioned three years ago. It's one thing to say, oh I'm going to open a restaurant and here's all the things I love, I'll pin them to my Pinterest board and then make it happen. But then the reality sets in that you only have so much of a budget, and when we opened in 2013, ours was very strict, so many of our design ideas were nixed in favor of necessities like working water heaters and roof repairs. Over time, we've been able to make improvements to the building and enact pieces of our design vision. It's incredibly satisfying when regulars notice things like our switch from linen-covered tables to reclaimed wood ones from local manufacturer Ink & Hammer.

But it's more than just the space. I walk into the restaurant and look around, and while I'm happy that the atmosphere is welcoming and more and more like what I envisioned years ago, I'm even happier to be at the host stand and hear servers talking with customers and be excited about new menu items and sincere about favorite cocktails. I work in the window as expediter and watch our chefs put out these incredible dishes, and I'm awe how it's all grown over time. All of that growth has been because people get what we're trying to do, and I believe that we are getting a little bit better every day.

What's the biggest way you believe your work impacts the Dayton community?
My family and I have always been big supporters in the idea of "growing the pie." We believe that the more cool things there are in Dayton, the better it is for everyone.  Rather than take a more divide and conquer, "I'd like a bigger piece of the pie" approach, we're believers that if you help bake a bigger pie, we all do better, which should benefit everyone, from our employees earning more to our customers having more options and things to be excited about and proud of.

I'm part of a new group of women small business owners in the Oregon District, and this idea that we all do better when we all work together is very prevalent and I'm proud to be part of it. I hope it's the wave of the future that everyone is more community driven and less individually minded.

Label yourself.
If I had to label myself, I'd say that as a punk rocker raised mostly in suburban Ohio, I'd eschew labels, because that's just like, another constraint from the man, man.

But I'll take a stab at a label: punk rocker raised mostly in suburban Ohio whose wanderlust led to long stints in Chicago and New Orleans. Now back home in Ohio as a retired party girl, former interior design PR rep, ex-union organizer, current restaurant owner and cat-loving lady who would almost* always rather be at home with my boyfriend than at a party.

(*Unless it's a really good party, which Dayton has a lot of.)

What is your favorite Dayton food/recreational activities?
I'm in love with canoeing, which in large part I owe to Joey Coolidge. As part of the Blind Bob's family, we lost a person who was very dear to us last year. I thank Joey for helping me realize that canoeing is one of the most gratifying and fun recreational activities, whether it's with a bunch of our favorite district people, or just paddling down the river and relaxing.

For food, I think the ultimate comfort food is Thai food. Anywhere I can get tom yum is my favorite place. Also I love a good curry, and I'm with a lot of others who cannot wait until someone opens an Indian restaurant downtown.

What do you love about life in Dayton?
The one thing that played the largest part in my returning to Dayton is that my family is located here. I love a lot about Dayton, but the fact that I don't have to get on a plane to see my family, that I get to go to family dinners--even when it is intense bickering about work stuff, which between the two family businesses of Blind Bob's and Lily's, it often is--means the world to me. I love that I don't have to travel long distances to argue with my family, which is kind of a Mendenhall way of showing love.

What would you change about Dayton?
There's a big city honesty that I miss. I'm used to people saying "hey, I didn't particularly care for this meal, it was too spicy, can I get something else?" I think some people in the Midwest think that they are being polite by not voicing their discontentment, but I would much rather know when we've made a misstep or let someone down and fix it while they are at the restaurant, than read it in an online review or hear it through gossip from a friend of a friend.

Also, a beach; we're not close to the ocean, and I miss that all of the time. I think everyone needs to put their toes in the sand at least twice a year. If we could take the people of Dayton and put them on a beach, it'd probably be perfect.

What do you wish people knew about Dayton?
Dayton is a city of inventors and we have an industrious, indomitable spirit. I've seen more cool collaborations in Dayton than I ever saw in other larger cities. I'm excited to be moving in that collaborative direction with our new partnership with Boston Stoker, where we are combining their coffee expertise and attention to quality with our food options. Also, the music scene in Dayton is just phenomenal. I joke that I need a condition of employment at Lily's to be that you must sign a guarantee that you will not join a band with your coworker, because employees keep forming all these awesome bands and I have trouble staffing weekend nights.

What are some things events and new food menus etc. that Daytonians can look forward to in 2016?
At Lily's, we are going to go all in on our unique perspective. Our pickle and shrub event last fall was so well received, and our amari/apertif/digestif event went so well, that we've decided to get away from the traditional and keep doing our own thing. We have a '90s rap-themed dinner in the works, and also Wu Tang cookies on house-made ice cream. We believe that people in Dayton have a sense of adventure and we plan to tap into that more.

In Other News