If you're a regular at The Lilly Pad, you probably arrive by one of two methods: motorcycle or boat. Few people arrive at the low-slung, gray cinder-block oddity between the Osborne boat landing and Kingsland Reach Marina in eastern Henrico County by accident.
And really, you're not likely to find it even if you know it's there. So I'm going to ask you a favor in exchange for giving up my neighborhood ace in the hole.
The Lilly Pad is unique in the Richmond region for several reasons, none more so than the location's appeal to various senses. Some are momentary, like the blast horn of a passing barge; some as eternal as the rippling river; and some, like the bubbling rumble of Harleys and Jet Skis, ebb and flow. But each is part of a sensory experience that distinguishes eastern Henrico from the county's west end.
When most people think about restaurants, they think taste. But at The Lilly Pad, the first thing you'll notice are the piers jutting into the broad bend in the James, then the golden boat wakes at sunset, and the far shore, a Chesterfield County forest spared from development by the constant threat of flood.
You'll be able to soak all this up because there's no sense of the staff trying to turn tables. Chef/owner Candice Atkins says that people think of this as their place. "If you give them that restaurant glare that means, 'It's time for you campers to pack up,' they're just as likely to glare right back," Atkins says. "And that's fine -- we want people to enjoy the location."
Of course, not everything about the location is enjoyable all the time. On some days, the backwater of the marina can smell a bit, well, fishy. And there's the occasional oily exhaust of a guy adjusting the idle on his outboard. Oh, and the regular waft of cigarette smoke and beer.
But these smells are mitigated by a refreshing and nearly constant breeze. All of this assumes you're at an outside table (preferably one of the two covered picnic table gliders, which echo the motion of waves). And let me assure you, you want to dine al fresco. Don't bother setting foot inside unless you like the smell of cigarettes.
This is a come-as-you-are place. Flip-flops and sunburns, biker boots and sideburns, Henrico's oldest farmers and newest families all are welcome. And though it's a self-proclaimed "no frills grill," don't let that fool you there are some seriously good eats going down at the Pad.
The menu runs the gamut from hot dogs to braised pork tenderloin, from penne marinara with Italian sausage and shrimp diavolo to peel-and-eat shrimp. And there are gems throughout like the rib-eye, a good match for the surf-and-turf option.
Though some of it is previously frozen, it's pretty high-quality stuff. And it'll set you back only a moderate chunk of change, too ($13.95 for the pound of shrimp and $14.95 for the petite surf-and-turf). Clearly somebody had their mind on the cooking and not their next cigarette break when they put out a perfect medium on a relatively thin cut of beef. But it's the steamed crab clusters that I find myself craving. They just may be the best dining experience in eastern Henrico.
Of course, the burgers are good exactly as you would expect from a joint like this. Less conventional from this bunker is the brunch and weekly sushi night. (Don't let the lowbrow building scare you; Atkins spent seven years at Shockoe Slip's Hana Zushi learning the craft from two sushi masters.)
By offering solidly prepared meals in a lovely outdoor setting with great, low-key service, Atkins has been able to milk six years of success out of her remote location, at least nine months of the year. In the winter the boat traffic dies and the kitchen is padlocked but not this year. She's banking on her growing popularity with neighbors people, like me, who have finally realized that not only is this the only restaurant for miles around, but it's also good.
This brings me to my request. I am happy to share this one-of-a-kind dining spot, but with one string attached. If I happen to bike over and find that you're sitting in my spot the one with the perfect view of the great blue heron hunting the shallows you gotta give it up. I'll simply ask, "Is that your car in the parking lot?" And if the answer's yes and you drove out from the city, you can slide over one table. Deal? S
The Lilly Pad ($-$$)
9680 Osborne Turnpike
Tuesday-Friday: Lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.;
dinner, 4:30-9 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
(brunch items early in the day).
Cash or check only.