Just two days after re-opening spaciously at the corner of Seabright and Soquel avenues, Lillian’s Italian Kitchen already looks like it had been welcoming the public to its handsome new dining room forever. The newly expanded Lillian’s boasts long side banquettes, a central expanse of flexible table seating, and a dark wood back bar and cocktail seating that will probably be one of the top spots in town to sip, flirt and watch flat-screen sports.
It felt like a neighborhood homecoming for the Morenos and their team of chefs, whose flaming sauté pan theatricals at the exhibition kitchen were visible for all to see. Very Vanessi’s. Service was welcoming and right on cue, and the family-friendly menu was as lengthy as ever.
My companion waxed nostalgic over the wire bread basket stocked with fresh ciabatta and tapenade olive oil. “It’s just like Jersey,” he beamed. It’s true, the feel of the unfussy hall is very Brooklyn-by-the-beach. We agreed to split a house green salad ($8.50)—dressed with a superlative creamy pesto vinaigrette—and then explore the Lillian’s concept two ways. I chose a fresh king salmon special with smashed potatoes and garlic spinach ($27) while Jack went for the beloved penne and Sunday gravy with meatballs ($24). We ordered a Chianti Classico ($9.50) and Nebbiolo ($11) by the glass from Lillian’s wine list. Distinctive stemware. Generous pours.
Seated at the banquette closest to the back entrance—watched over by a suite of appealing family photographs—we enjoyed a surprisingly quiet dining experience. Given the size of the room and the vintage pressed tin ceiling, the noise level toward the Soquel Avenue windows can climb as the room reaches capacity.
We were both very pleased with our choices. My salmon arrived with a succulent moist interior and that crisp seared top that only restaurants seem to be able to do. The spinach was ridiculously delicious and infused the potatoes beneath with a comforting garlic inflection. Tiny radish sprouts topped a dice of tomatoes in the center of the dish. Pretty and tasty. The penne was perfectly cooked and the Sunday gravy—a charismatic tomato meat sauce of simmered meats and Italian sauce—was heaven. Jack loved Lillian’s supersized meatballs. Everything tasted like serious Italian home cooking.
Checking out the bar area after dinner, I got a closer look at the beautiful woodwork and the polished granite bar top. The line-up of small tables in this lounge section felt incredibly cozy, tucked into the wraparound dining space. The pacing hummed throughout our meal, as streams of diners came—or took a seat to wait for tables. It felt like it had always been here, the new expanded, thoroughly old-school California Italian Lillian’s. Welcome home! Hours are 4-9 p.m., and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. lilliansitaliankitchen.com.
Soquel Vineyards’ 2014 Nelson Chardonnay was awarded a 91 point rating from Wine Enthusiast. The wine contains 100 percent Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay and weighs in at a refreshing 13.7 percent alcohol, driving “an intense and remarkable sense of sea salt caramel” as well as a “chalky limestone character,” according to the magazine. Since this wine also won a Double Gold at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, I’m inclined to head on over to the winery and pick up a bottle. Or two. In the $28 ballpark.