Why this Lisburn Road lounge is the perfect place to while away a Saturday afternoon with great company and fantastic food
The lounge bar used to be Ireland’s second most important place of public worship after the church. Until 20 years ago, a visit to the bar was something for which you prepared with as much devotion and intensity as a fasting communicant. You saved up a few quid for the Friday night, you cleaned up a bit and some of us even practised a joke or two with which to regale and impress our mates later in the evening.
But in the last couple of decades, things have changed. Human social behaviour has become less collective and more me-myself-alone. Those venues that had evolved over hundreds of years from early inns and taverns to saloons, bars and lounges now find themselves in decline as fewer of us feel the need to go out to be with people.
The recently identified phenomenon of “sofalising” — the act of social networking while watching the telly in your home is now accelerating this decline because you can be with friends without having to be in front of them, drink the cheaper booze you bought in the supermarket and watch the match all at once.
But be warned. The loss of Ireland’s lounge bars will be as great a tragedy for our identity as the extinction of the great Irish elk, the loss of our manufacturing might and the disappearance of men in dunchers walking big black bicycles up country hills.
If you go into Lily’s in the Lisburn Road in Belfast, however, you will encounter a mood that is taken straight from the pages of Flann O’Brian’s Dalkey Archives or The Third Policeman. Here lies the spirit of the lounge bar: a mix of respectability and hospitality, a bit of crack, warmth and degree of unpredictability. (The Vintage lounge bar in Armagh used to be quite posh but occasionally you mght hear loud animal noises that turned out to made by one of the drinkers — that kind of unpredictability.)
There could also be a sullen element in proper lounge bars, particularly on Saturday afternoons. There is nothing sullen in Lily’s this Saturday afternoon. The successor to Monzu (formerly Tatu), Lily’s is a bar with a restaurant that appears to mix two completely incompatible features very successfully: a proper bar with racing on the telly and twinkly eyed gougers supping Guinness checking their dockets on the one hand, and a sprinkling of gorgeous, slightly jumpy BT9 mums enjoying a strand or two of spaghetti with a glass of Chianti on the other.
The advisor spots one or two refugees over from the Chelsea down the road. She suggests Lily’s has established itself as the beau monde’s head quarters, but not to the exclusion of the damp old men who still live around there.
Tiled floor, dark mushroom coloured walls, wood panelling and some old framed Double Diamond ads and pictures of Christine Keeler give the place a little reference point. But the dishes we are about to be served are definitely not from the Sixties.
A simple menu has everything for the young family, and sound words of guidance from the server, too. For instance, there are beef and chorizo burgers, but don’t be worrying about the pinkiness of the burger meat — that’s because the chorizo has been ground into the beef.
Mussels marinieres are excellent served in a decent big bowl with quality Strangford
shellfish – big, plump and juicy with that lovely yolkey colour and deep flavours. The liqueur tastes like it’s made with Pineau from the Charentes, a local fortified wine made from the grapes used for brandy. I’ve had very similar dishes in Cognac that cost a good bit more than £5.95 charged here.
The starter of warm tiger prawns in olive oil and chives comes with a powerful aioli. It is fabulously breathy and spicey and interesting because it’s a departure from the ubiquitous salt-and-chilli approach. That little chive kick is far better matched to the prawns.
Nothing that follows can be faulted. A rib-eye is asked for rare and comes out perfectly, a little bit cooled to let the meat relax, it is tender yet robust and tasty. It is topped with a beurre de Paris with a strong hint of curry and works remarkably well with the meat. Skinny fries are irregular and hand-cut with lots of crispy bits and a rocket and Parmisan salad with balsamic is tangy and sweet.
A quarter roast chicken with light gravy flakes off the bone and has plenty of moistness and tastes of happy chickens — there’s nothing cardboardy or bland about this meat.
Lily’s is meant to be informal, relaxed, bright and breezy and you could easily forget that the food is as good as it is. And what makes it work so well is an attentive crew of servers. Lily’s is not a lounge bar. But it has all the components to make it as good as one with the added bonus of having an excellent restaurant attached.
Mussels x 2: £11.90
Tiger prawns: £5.95
Burger x 2: £17.90
Tobacco onions: £2.95
Caramelised banana: £4.50
Coke x 2: £3.10
Lrg sparkling water: £3.95
Coffees x 2: £4.50
Hot chocolate: £2.30