When every element of something comes together seamlessly, the result can transcend greatness. Peng Peng Lee led the UCLA Gymnastics team to a national championship thanks to her iconic, perfect 10 beam routine. And Lily, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in the Richmond, achieves similar success by nailing every aspect essential to a fantastic meal: great food and service, and impeccable attention to detail in everything. And that’s why we’d come here for nearly any occasion.
Like blasting Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR in its entirety, eating at Lily is a thrilling journey from start to finish. Bold, creative dishes on the one-page menu take front and center, like the jackfruit “pizza” made on a crispy rice cracker, or the whole fried red snapper that’s curled on a bed of kimchi and pineapple chow fun. The dishes are gorgeous without being overly showy - watermelon radishes are cut into flower shapes and used as garnishes alongside edible petals, and a neat mound of broken rice that’s submerged in a little bowl of broth stays magically intact. Photos of them deserve their own exhibit in the de Young.
But the food here isn’t just stunning to look at. Everything that lands on your table explodes with flavors and textures, much like a fireworks display at Disneyland. Case in point: The colorful shaking beef salad. Tender filet mignon is dressed up with crispy toasted garlic and shallots and tart radishes that cut through the buttery avocado. There’s also the refreshing drinks - like a strawberry sinh to with Pop Rock-like candy mixed in, or the creamy iced Vietnamese coffee topped with salted duck egg shavings.
The service and space are also keys to Lily’s greatness. When you walk in, you’ll be seated at the bar in front of the bustling open kitchen, or at one of the tables along the wall, which is lined with a long, cushy red banquette. The dining room is intimate but doesn’t feel cramped. And the service is attentive and personable - your water glasses will stay full, servers will help you narrow down your choices, and the chef may bring your food out, say hi, or even mix your salad together tableside.
Before your table has been cleared, don’t be surprised if you start plotting an excuse to make another reservation, whether it’s for date night, a family dinner, or a birthday celebration with friends. It’s what happens when you experience a meal that checks all the boxes, from the service and presentation to really damn good food. Lily is a relative newcomer to San Francisco’s dining scene - and it’s already one of the most exciting places to eat in the city.
These crackly golden-brown spring rolls are filled with duck confit that soaks up the spicy mustard dipping sauce really well. Start off with a plate of these to share.
This is one of our favorite dishes on the menu - it’s packed with tons of fresh veggies, from avocados and cucumbers to crisp radishes and baby tomatoes. The filet mignon chunks are perfectly tender, and arrive steaming hot in their own bowl for you to mix into the salad, along with the soft poached egg.
This noodle dish comes with banh hoi noodles (vermicelli woven into a rectangular, mat-like shape), and a bowl of charcoal-grilled meatballs, pork belly, and pork shoulder in a broth we wish would appear magically at our bedside every time we’re sick. Wrap it all in lettuce with fresh herbs and crunchy pickles, and make yourself the perfect bite.
Caramelized on the outside, this pork chop practically melts in your mouth when you bite into it. Sorry, but it will ruin all other pork chops for you. You also get a bowl of egg, pork sausage, and shrimp topped with an egg yolk the color of a poppy field, plus a mound of broken rice in a light, flavorful broth. This is simplicity and comfort at its finest.
The fish of the day varies - on our recent visit, it was a red snapper. It’s fried whole and arrives perched on a bed of kimchi, saucy pineapple chow fun, and bok choy. This dish is lighter than some of the other more meat-heavy entrées on the menu, and one that should definitely be on your table.
If we could start off every day with this drink, there’s no telling what kinds of caffeine-induced superpowers we’d unlock. We love the layer of thick salted duck egg foam, which adds a nice creaminess when mixed in.
The one inconsistency at Lily. On one of our visits, the crème brûlée was near-perfect - the crackly topping shattered with a satisfying crunch - and on the next, it was sticky and thick. Not something you need to save room for, but if you catch them on a good day, it’s a great way to go out.