VARINA, Va. -- Drive just about 15 miles east of downtown Richmond on Route 5 you are in another world.
The Lilly Pad, which dubs itself Richmond's only waterfront bar and restaurant, sits at Kingsland Marina along the James River in Varina.
While the Lilly Pad has been around for decades, it has a new owner and a new menu which has created a new vibe in the old spot.
"I've been in Richmond long enough to know that the restaurants that have the good food are the ones that sustain," owner Max Walraven said. "Mamma Zu's is a perfect example. Crappy little building, weird little location, line out the door for 35 years because the food was so good. I don't want to run a restaurant that has a subpar menu and say, 'oh, but the view is nice.' I want to have a great menu. I want people to come out here in the winter to eat and huddle up under the space heaters that all the restaurants have now to have a good piece of fish or a burger."
Walraven has pushed for many changes at the Lilly Pad, but there are some aspects of the old restaurant he refused to touch.
"We have the buckets of beer, which I must say we've done a lot of comps to other bars and restaurants around Richmond and I have yet to find a restaurant with a domestic beer special, as inexpensive as ours. That bucket of beer for $10 is $2.50 a domestic and we run that every day. That's, you know, we that's not a happy hour special. That's every day," he said. "That was one of the things from the previous Lilly Pad that I said, we've got to keep the burger and bucket, we got to keep the bucket of beer special. There are these elements that kind of make the Lilly Pad the Lilly Pad. And I wanted to keep those intact, including the name you know, I purchased the name from the previous owner because I said we can't rename it. It can't be River Grill. It can't be the something bistro. It's got to be the Lilly Pad."
And along with that came a mural on the side of the building that has his restaurant's name misspelled.
"The mural on the side is L-I-L-Y like a lily pad. And then the name itself is after Lillian or the woman's name, Lilly, L-I-L-L-Y. And it turns out during the remodel, an old guy walks up. I thought he was lost or something. I'm like, 'Can I help you?' He goes, 'I painted that mural right there.' I was like, man, I got questions for you, buddy," Walraven said. "Turns out he said he was a Scrabble buff. There's no way he could actually spell it the way that it was spelled and the woman's name L-I-L-L-Y. And he said, and we're still talking about it. I said, What do you mean? He goes, Well, I thought it was funny. Like if I spelled it wrong, everybody would talk about it. And I was like, man, okay, cool. Well, we're gonna leave it. So then people still remind me they're like, Hey, your name is spelled wrong and I just I let it be. Kind of the folklore."
As COVID-19 restrictions ease and more people are comfortable going out to eat, the wait times at the Lilly Pad have increased. Diners can get on a waiting list before driving over. And once they arrive, the Lilly Pad features a cocktail area to sit, sip, and snack while waiting for a table. Walraven said he's noticed a need to expand that area to include separate bar service.
"One thing that we have talked about is putting building a Tiki Bar in that cocktail seating area to offset some of the volume that goes to the main bar," he said. "[We'd] give it that Tiki vibe with the thatched roof and some pina coladas and with all bar seating around it so that people can get that feeling that they want of sitting at a bar talking to a bartender. I think that during this pandemic, a lot of people have missed out on that. And that's why people are so ready to go into bars."
He has other big plans for the future, like pulling up a barge and creating a whole new dining and entertainment space.
"I purchased a very large barge, it's a 3,000 square feet downstairs and about a 3000 square foot rooftop deck," Walraven said. "Ultimately we're going to remodel that and have a whole other space that can be special events, conditioned bar, and indoor dining room, a rooftop covered deck on top of the barge. It's twice the size of the current Lilly Pad building. So it's no small project but I think it would be the first of its kind in this region. A floating restaurant, so to speak.
The Lilly Pad features live music on Saturday nights and Salsa dancing every Thursday.
It is located at 9680 Osborne Turnpike in Varina.
Learn about The Lilly Pad, Richmond's hottest waterfront restaurant