Our can-do town of Dayton has a long history of being a city of innovators. This legacy doesn’t just apply to traditional business, over the years it has also very much applied to restaurants.
One restaurant in 2016 that demonstrated its ability to switch things up was Lily’s Bistro in the Oregon District.
Since opening in April 2013, the restaurant has grown by leaps and bounds, putting its own interesting twists on seasonal menus, specials, creative dinners and events.
We recently caught up with Emily Mendenhall, general manager and owner of Lily’s Bistro to hear more about how things are progressing.
Here are 5 things to know about Lily’s Bistro:
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1. THE HISTORY
Q: What is the story of Lily’s? How did it come to be?
A: My family opened Blind Bob’s in August of 2008, and had a small wine list. They quickly realized the clientele of an American pub … rock n’ roll venue, wasn’t so much into wine and dropped that. My mother, Lisa, pleaded with my brother Nate who runs Blind Bob’s to stock just a few decent wines so she and her friends could sit outside on their patio and enjoy a couple glasses the way Bob, my dad, and the namesake of Blind Bob’s, does with bourbon and cigars.
Nate is kind of stubborn and refused, but suggested sort of facetiously that she look into opening another restaurant that would have a wine list.
Boulevard Haus had closed and along with it, their awesome back courtyard patio … so my family started looking into the space and reached out to me. This was in late 2012, and I was living in New Orleans and was going through some life changes and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. … I moved back in January of 2013 and we closed on the building in March.
We had a very tight budget and worked like crazy to open less than six weeks later. People ask about the name a lot. There’s no Lily. Since Blind Bob’s is kind of my dad and my brother’s thing, and Lily’s is more my mom and me, it’s a mash up of our names — Lisa and Emily — to make the fictitious “Lily.”
2. THE CHEF
Q: Who is your chef and what is their background?
A: Our Chef de Cuisine is Amy Finch and she has been at Lily’s since day one. We parted ways with our opening chef in September, and in getting to know Amy over the years, we knew she had the skills and vision to take Lily’s in the direction that makes sense for us and to spotlight what we excel at.
Amy and I bonded over getting Sunday brunch up and running and maintaining it as it grew to be almost too big, then in creating our Sunday night family-style dinners featuring local, free-range fried chicken.
3. THE SPECIALTIES
Q: What does your restaurant specialize in?
A: Since promoting Amy Finch, we’ve been fine tuning what Lily’s means. We recently got together and made a list of words that describe who we are and what we do: playful, whimsical, comfort, eclectic, global, funky, unexpected, homey, quirky, southern — we’re using these terms to help guide us as we solidify our new menu for January 2017.
In a nutshell, I would say Lily’s is eclectic American food with heavy southern and street food influence. We also work with a lot of local purveyors because we believe in supporting fellow local business owners and their employees who are part of our community, and because they have the freshest products that also taste the best.
Q: What is your philosophy on good food?
A: We consider ourselves “nice dining,” which we describe as casual upscale food in a welcoming atmosphere. As for my philosophy on good food — I love food on so many levels. I love tweezered plates and hyper-locally foraged ingredients and pizza and sushi and fried chicken and molecular gastronomy and everything between all of those and I love them when they are quite simply good food. Just because a dish has 17 ingredients and some kind of gelee or sphere on it doesn’t mean it’s good; it has to taste good. At Lily’s, it’s that plus a sense of humor.
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4. THE MENU
Q: What are Lily’s best-selling menu items?
• Beignets: Cafe du Monde style fried dough covered in powdered sugar. We serve ours with a little red raspberry jam for $5 and only on Saturday and Sunday.
• Fried Chicken: Every Sunday night we serve our local, free-range fried chicken dinner and more, including appetizers, sides, and a couple traditional entrees. In January, we are going to start offering our fried chicken at dinner Tuesday-Saturday, although the family style menu will still only be on Sunday.
• General Tso’s cauliflower: This is a vegetarian entree for meat eaters. It’s like Thai buffalo chicken only vegetarian, and served over rice. It’s available Tues-Saturday at dinner, although we offer an appetizer that is similar during lunch Tues-Friday. The entree is $16 and the weekday appetizer is $8
• Deviled eggs: From the very beginning, I wanted to offer deviled eggs, as they’re a fun, homey item that can easily be elevated and incorporate all kinds of unexpected flavors. Ours are local and free-range, and the kitchen is always coming up with something cool. Last week they were sesame sriracha topped with seaweed salad; this week they are BLT with bacon, basil (lettuce) and tomato filling sprinkled with smoked paprika. In the summer we do “green eggs and ham” pretty frequently, which is a pesto filling with a cured pork garnish.
Q: What is your favorite dish on the menu?
A: Pimento cheese! You mix cream cheese, mayo, other cheeses, and pimentos together. I ate 3 spoonfuls for dinner tonight. It’s sometimes called “the caviar of the south,” and having moved back from Louisiana, I consider myself somewhat of a pimento cheese expert and Chef Amy’s is life affirming. We offer it as an appetizer at dinner with kettle chips and homemade allspice pickles, or we use it at lunch and brunch on top of a Keener beef burger alongside bacon jam.
5. THE WOW FACTOR
Q: What do you believe is unique about the food you are serving?
A: I think what makes Lily’s unique is that we are are not afraid to try things out. Our customers are just as likely to enjoy the “Disco Tots Deluxe” or the “Hangover Cure” (a big bowl of potatoes with vegetarian mushroom gravy, scrambled eggs, sauteed onions and peppers, cheddar cheese and toast) as our classic, more traditional Eggs Benedict.
We try to juxtapose street food and elevated comfort food with more traditional and seasonal options. Also, the majority of our staff — both kitchen and front of house — have worked in formal environments and have the training and knowledge of fine dining, but we try to bring it to people in a way that feels more comfortable and inviting.
5. THE EVENTS
Q: You have done some cool food events in 2016. Can you talk about a few of them?
A: We are always up for trying something different. While we have fun doing wine dinners and work closely with excellent wine representatives to create a cool list, it’s not our natural strength as much as doing something off the wall like hauntFEAST or our Hip Hop Dinner “Eats, Rhymes, and Life.” HauntFEAST featured a four-course meal including items like “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which was a squid ink pasta with calamari and shrimp in roasted garlic cream, or Carrie’s fried ice cream which was fried ice cream with blood orange coulis. For the hip hop dinner we had a DJ and a very early ’90s-2000s hip hop theme with items like the Kale-ifornia love salad and Trout-kast entree. We sold that event out and had a blast! Plus our staff got into it and dressed up and looked incredible.