Oregon District restaurant unveils its zesty transformation

Now more than ever, I’ve been craving something different. A different vibe, a different space, a different flavor.

Emily Mendenhall had been feeling the same. Shortly before COVID-19 shut down her Oregon District restaurant, she had decided a revamp was in order.

She had just hired Executive Chef Don Warfe, who has led different kitchens around town (including The Trolley Stop, Christopher’s and The Bison and The Boar), and they had exciting ideas simmering.

Mendenhall, co-owner of Lily’s, had been mulling over a concept change for a while. Then her doors closed to the public on March 15 due to orders from the state.

“In 2019, we started considering making substantial changes to Lily’s, as the year had been financially challenging and the market seemed oversaturated with concepts that were similar to ours. We also were nervous about a recession and how that would squeeze restaurants like ours that were at a middle-higher price point, but not the highest. I worked in a restaurant in Chicago in 2008 that Lily’s was modeled after quite a bit, and that restaurant and my job were devastated by the recession.

“Additionally, we felt that there was a lack of options in Dayton that were nicer than a bar setting — we love bars that serve food, as we also own Blind Bob’s in the District — but more casual than fine dining. We’ve always positioned Lily’s as more of an upscale-casual restaurant, but decided that we wanted to go more casual.”

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

‘Good Food, Tasty Cocktails'

The restaurant is open with socially-distanced dining on its three patios, as well as a small number of indoor tables. They have dropped “Bistro” from the name in favor of Lily’s Dayton, with the motto “Good Food, Tasty Cocktails.”

“In pivoting to a more casual concept, we also wanted to reinvigorate the ‘fun’ aspect of our job, and one thing that is fun that I love is Tiki culture and tropical drinks and food to match them. The interior as well as the bar and kitchen offerings are all what I call ‘tiki-ish,’ where we take inspiration from tiki culture to create a more tropical vibe that is warm, welcoming, inclusive, and inviting at a more budget-friendly price point,” Mendenhall said. “Lily’s is about 90-percent through our transformation.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Some of Lily’s most popular American southern dishes, including its fried chicken and shrimp and grits, will be featured alongside new menu items. Craft cocktails also remain a key focus, but more affordable and with a spotlight on drinks that “beg to be garnished with an umbrella.”

“With everything going on, there was no way to keep the old concept afloat, so we are hoping these changes position us to survive 2020 and make it through to 2021, which is about all any independent restaurant can ask for right now. And we are having fun while trying to hang in there, and hope our guests find the new concept fun and welcoming.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Tiki inspiration

The price points are friendly and accommodating starting at the bar. Lily’s Hurricane made with a passion fruit puree is the only drink on the menu priced more than $9. One of the three draft taps has been earmarked for a cheaper, good lager on tap. Right now it’s Narengansett, an Eastern seaboard lager featured prominently in the movie “Jaws” priced at just $2.50 for a pint.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

The menu has been designed to be shareable with plenty of small plate options in addition to more traditional entrees. The beauty of the menu is a cocktail, a beer, and really great food can all be purchased for around $20.

I have had the good fortune of trying most of the menu of cocktails and food and can say most of these aren’t dining options you are going to find anywhere else in town.

Lily’s has done something with the kind of tang and zest we could all use right now. The food and cocktails zip and zing as much as the retro surf music that accompanies the meal.

“One thing I love about Tiki culture is that ‘escapism’ is a big part of it. And our goal at Lily’s is to transport people out of Dayton to somewhere else, to escape the struggles around us all and the challenges of daily life and to kick back and relax and enjoy life and be able to step for a brief time into a sort of vacation-mood with good food and tasty cocktails,” Mendenhall said.

With so much less seating, it’s a menu that Mendenhall and Warfe plays to the physical constraints of the building.

“The idea was taking the most successful items from Lily’s, who we had been over the years, and creating a space that transports you away to someplace else. The challenge was how do you build a bridge from the Polynesian flavors to the Southern dishes that had become a staple for Lily’s,” Warfe said.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Both Warfe and Mendenhall worry about a concept change possibly alienating loyal customers, but they are hoping the community will give the new concept a chance knowing that it’s still a restaurant run by a chef but at a price point that makes it more of a regular visit than a special occasion destination.

Must-try dishes

One place you can quickly see the Southern and Polynesian fusian is with the Bahn Mi and Po Boy options.

“A lot of places will call a Bahn Mi a Vietnamese Po Boy. They have this overlap in their DNA – they’re kind of the same but also so different,” said Mendenhall. Both the Bahn Mi and Po Boys are served on locally-baked French rolls with a side of garlic fries. The fried oyster Po boy ($16), short rib Po boy ($16) have a generous amount of protein.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

The vegan General ‘Tso Boy’ ($14) features tempura-battered cauliflower tossed in soy ginger sauce, pickled daikon radish, red onion, carrot, fresh cucumber, and cilantro.

The standout is the Pork Belly Bahn Mi ($15) made with pork belly, chicken liver paté, pickled daikon radish, red onion, carrot, fresh cucumber, cilantro, and hoison. It’s a flavorful treat that pairs well with the full spectrum of specialty tropical cocktails they have developed. The sandwich has fresh, bright lively flavors with veggies that sing and dance around the savory pork belly and pate with a small little zip thanks to onion, pepper and pickled radish.

The Maryland Style Crab Cakes ($11) may be one of the best deals in town with three pan-fried cakes with housemade remoulade. It was absolutely delicious and left me wanting more.

The Caribbean Pulled Pork Nachos ($13) was another favorite with braised pulled pork over wonton crisps with smoked queso, fresh jalapenos, tomatillo salsa, and house vegetable slaw. Both are dishes I will come back for. Nachos can be a tired bar food staple, but Lily’s has elevated it to another flavorful level.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

The restaurant’s popular family-style chicken, a Sunday special, has been incorporated on the menu permanently.

Must-try cocktails

I took a shine to three cocktails in particular — the Mahalo Margarita ($9) made with Mi Campo silver tequila, Aperol, Wahaka Mezcal, fresh cucumber, lime, simple.

Cardamom Gin & Tonic ($9) is made with Hayman’s Royal Dock navy strength gin infused with cardamom and vanilla, fresh lime juice, pineapple and white rock tonic water.

The Whistler ($9) a summery bourbon cocktail that hits all the flavor spots of an Old Fashioned.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Happily, all straws they are using for the

new cocktail program are compostable and biodegradable.

No reservations

Mendenhall said the menu has been developed to ensure that orders will hit tables quickly with the kind of crafted plates Lily’s has become known for. With the new turnaround times, Mendenhall feels more confident people can find a table. You can call ahead on the same day to reserve your spot.

Mendenhall also shared that the restaurant just got medical-grade air purifiers.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

“We are taking the steps we need to take now once our patios are closed to make sure the interior is ready to go and safe for winter,” Mendenhall said.

With so much doom and gloom right now, it’s lovely to have such a bright, inviting, happy, playful option that not only delivers on food and drink, but with a vibe that brings happiness and light. To have it be budget-friendly with gluten-free and veggie options on top of it just adds to the luster.

If you're looking for something comfortable with lively flavors that are off the beaten path, look no further.

Dayton Eats looks at the regional food stories and restaurant news that make mouths water. Share info about your menu updates, special dinners and events, new chefs, interesting new dishes and culinary adventures. Do you know of exciting outdoor spaces, new exciting format changes, specials, happy hours, restaurant updates or any other tasty news you think is worth a closer look at? E-mail Alexis Larsen at alexis.e.larsen@hotmail.com with the information and we will work to include it in future coverage.

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