Atlanta Orders In: Café Lily in Decatur treads carefully as it navigates pandemic dining

Café Lily's signature dish, Pinchitos, brings chargrilled Spanish-spiced lamb tenderloin with sauteed white sweet potatoes, green beans, picante salsa verde and Manchego cheese. Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

For Café Lily co-owner Katie McLellan, the past seven months have been a period of constant learning, one that resembles her own journey there from hostess to restaurateur.

Anthony Pitillo founded the Mediterranean restaurant in 1999 with his father, Angelo. When Angelo passed away in 2008, the operation fell on Anthony’s shoulders, ones already weighted by his responsibility as the restaurant’s chef. Two years later, McLellan was hired as a hostess. Upon graduating that year from Agnes Scott College, her job prospects were slim. “The restaurant took me under their wings, promoted me to bartender, taught me everything I know.” McLellan said. She continued her upward path: bartender, server, manager, and now co-owner.

McLellan and Pitillo are applying everything they’ve learned about the industry to keep the engine running at the downtown Decatur eatery, but the start of the restaurant’s third decade has been marked by stop after stop.

The first halt came in March when COVID-19 arrived in Georgia. The restaurant closed for two months and reopened around Mother’s Day only to shut again in early July because of the alarming spike in cases throughout the region. On Aug. 21, they unlocked the doo

Open since 1999 in downtown Decatur, Cafe Lily offers a menu of "eclectic" Mediterranean bites. Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

rs once more, their latest attempt to brave the new age in dining.

“Hopefully, now is a safe time to open,” McLellan said.

The coronavirus has revealed how critical it is for restaurant operators to pay attention to warning signs and take action. For Pitillo and McLellan, the early warning signs came from overseas, from a longtime server currently living in Shanghai.

“We got our first glimpse of the shutdown before it even happened here,” McLellan said. Thanks to that employee’s reports from abroad, “It was already on our radar.” But, she added, “being an American, you don’t think it’s going to happen to you. It seems naive now. “We thought we could close two to three weeks and reopen and things would be normal again,” McLellan said.

Like other restaurants throughout the country, it’s been far from normal — from the paperwork (filing unemployment for their staff of 24 and applying for a Paycheck Protection Program loan) to the paper goods needed to manage takeout orders to the myriad protections they’ve put in place to make the restaurant safe for employees and guests.

“We’re constantly learning,” said McLellan as she described the chaos of reopening Mother’s Day weekend to a slew of takeout orders. “We had never done to-go food. Before COVID-19, we did maybe 10 to-go orders a week. We didn’t realize how complicated it would be. We definitely made mistakes. And we were learning new systems. Customers wanted to be able to pay online. I can’t just snap my fingers and you can pay online.”

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Café Lily offers a variety of pasta dishes, including a seasonal gemelli. The current plate includes shiitake mushrooms, diced Romas, organic baby spinach, garlic, thyme and fresh lemon. Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

With takeout, online ordering and delivery processes firmly under control, McLellan hopes that the steps they’ve taken to reopening the patio and dining room will keep the virus at bay. The Café Lily playbook includes capping the 120-seat interior to just 20 guests, with parties seated 12 feet apart and an empty table positioned in between. “We will probably continue to do that until we feel it is safe to have a full dining room,” McLellan said.

In addition, it has dedicated the Café Lily room in the rear, with seating for up to eight, for “people who are higher risk but can’t be outside.” The private room is available upon request; first-come, first-served.

The patio offers 32 seats among nine socially distanced tables.

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As an extra precaution, the restaurant requires any employee who has flown on a plane or visited a virus hotspot to quarantine for two weeks, get tested for the coronavirus and show proof of negative results prior to returning to work.

The labor has been worth it, she said, especially reopening for on-premises dining. “It was so nice to see friendly familiar faces last weekend.”

“I like to think of us as a place to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays. In this new pandemic world, we’ve had to kind of push all that stuff off,” McLellan said. “I’m hoping when there’s a vaccine, there will be a pent-up demand and people will really want to celebrate.”

CAFÉ LILY

Food menu: Slightly abbreviated menu

Alcohol: Wine and cocktails to go; full bar for dine-in patrons

What I ordered: Nana’s Marinated Eggplant, Taramosalata, Seasonal Gemelli, Pinchitos, Lemon-sponge Custard. Café Lily refers to its cuisine as “eclectic Mediterranean.” Dishes with the designation “Nana’s” hail from chef and co-owner Anthony Pitillo’s Italian grandmother. The marinated eggplant with strips of roasted red pepper indeed tasted like they were from a nonna’s kitchen. If you’re looking for a change-up among dips, try the taramosalata, a salty Greek spread made with tarama (fish roe), olive oil and lemon juice.

Service options: Dine-in, takeout and delivery (5-mile radius) via ChowNow. Order in person, by phone or online.

Safety protocols: Following all COVID-19 restaurant safety guidelines. All staff wear masks. Staff who have flown on a plane or visited a virus hotspot must quarantine for two weeks, get tested for the coronavirus and show proof of negative results prior to returning to work. Dining room capacity limited to 20 seats (less than 20% capacity). Hand sanitizer and wipes at hostess stand and bar.

Address, phone: 308 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-371-9119

Hours: 4-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays (brunch hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.)

Website: cafelily.com

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