Lillie's, 13 E. 17th St, 212-337-1970
Price range: $23-$35
Lillie's isn't the kind of place you expect to find between Chelsea and Union Square. One look across the sea of suits milling around the 40-foot marble bar and you'd swear this was Murray Hill. Yup, the banker/fratboy contingent has adopted this impressive new self-described Victorian Irish lounge, a place featuring over-the-top, mahogany-heavy decor that seems like the Vegas idea of a 19th-century Dublin hangout for Anglican gentry, financing a life of luxury on the backs of those who produce. So perhaps the crowd is appropriate.
Lillie's has a great beer selection, with lineups from Belgium and small American brewers but disappointingly few Irish quaffs. But much of the crowd isn't ordering the beer, a bargain at $6 draughts. The drinks of choice seemed to be oak-y Chardonnay and, distressingly, Grey Goose and sour, beloved by the blue-shirt, white-collar set.
But the bartenders are a good lot, attentive and lacking pretense — although one particularly green drink slinger accidentally spilled a Black and Tan all over my companion's dress. The same good intentions can't be ascribed to the hostess, who had earlier told us that the wait for a table in the restaurant portion in the back was going to be an hour. By the time she came around to tell us our table was ready, my friend had gone home to try to clean the Guinness from her purse, and I had ordered takeout. The hostess found all of this funny.
When a night goes so poorly — needless waiting, a crowd out of an 80s movie, a rude hostess and a clumsy bartender (who did cut our bill in half) — it can be a solace to mock it in writing. The only problem is the food: It's good. Pan-seared halibut takeout should be a slimy, chewy mess, but the kitchen cooked it perfectly to survive the takeout container, while the accompanying green peas and mushrooms in a beurre blanc were a clear taste of modern Irish fare, fresh and simple, letting great ingredients speak for themselves, without skimping on the butter. Likewise, a grilled ham and cheddar sandwich slicked the hands but somehow avoided being heavy. Even beet salad rose above its humble roots with an outrageously good goat cheese and an uncommonly balanced dressing.
All in all, an infuriating experience, but I can't say I won't be back. And I'm sure that some day soon, the finance-dude crowd will tire of the Victorian-Irish concept, letting me tuck into a velvet chair at the bar, free from jostling elbows and Jäger bombs. That and a few years of wear, not the simulation of age, and Lillie's might really be something.