This Restaurant Axed Its Hottest Menu Item—and For Good Reason

San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho tells the tale of a $72 dish that did more harm than good.

If you've ever read anything about restaurants, then you know that most often they're a losing proposition, and the ones that last for years are the exception rather than the rule. So when an up-and-coming restaurant generates lots of business with a buzzy new dish, you might think that such success could only be a good thing. But as Soleil Ho illuminates for us in the San Francisco Chronicle this week, that's not always the case: Lily, a San Francisco Vietnamese restaurant, recently removed a beloved $72 crab fried rice meal from its menu, saying the item was only ever meant to be a "stunt dish" and that its unexpected popularity caused headaches for the business.

Lily first opened in the midst of the pandemic, October 2020, and by December, having only produced takeout meals, the kitchen staff was interested in a challenge. So a gimmicky dish was created for a two-week run during the holiday season: the #1 Dac Biet Fried Rice, which Ho describes as having "the aesthetics of a jewelry display." Loaded with wagyu sirloin, caviar, truffles, and three types of crab, the dish was positively ostentatious, and Chef Rob Lam was confident that people would understand its levels of excess as the joke they were intended to be. Instead, people went nuts for it.

"The premise was, let's do something so over-the-top and bougie," Lam explained to the Chronicle. Indeed, the #1 Dac Biet Fried Rice had a different name in the back of the house: "#1 douchebag fried rice," a nod to the type of person presumed to be drawn to such an absurd concoction. But because of its beauty, and the fact that it really was made exceptionally well from the finest of ingredients, it took off, becoming one of the city's must-order dishes among foodies and influencers. Rather than sticking to its initial two-week run, the dish became a permanent part of the menu—that is, until it was axed this past June.

Why kill a dish that so many people love? As Ho explains, there were many reasons. For one thing, since the ingredients sourced for the fried rice were so high-end (which was supposed to underline the initial gag), its $72 price tag meant that the restaurant didn't earn any money on the dish. Customers would often order the fried rice and nothing else, meaning that there was no profit motive to continue producing it (and it was difficult and time-consuming to produce). Beyond that, though, generating buzz with this type of dish meant that Lily would come to be known as a place with ultra-high-end Instagram-trap fare, and that's not what the owners or chef wanted for the business.

"This wasn't us," Lam said. "It wasn't who we wanted to be."

The text from the Instagram post announcing the killing of this dish was downright triumphant. It reads, in part:

We are sad/glad to announce the departure of our crab fried rice. This will be the last week to try. Ending Friday.

It's too hard to keep up with y'all. 🥵. We're only supposed to sell three or four a night. Not twenty!!! Sheesh.

We did this as a joke! A stoned out, bored ass, pandemic 😷 gift. To soothe a take out nation during the holidays. It was a two week special! We never meant for this to take off! This dish isn't even 🇻🇳 Vietnamese!!!

Besides, Ho points out that there are many other dishes at Lily worthy of our love and affection. The chicken wings, the beef carpaccio, the mango chicken salad—it all sounds great, and each one carries a slightly more modest price tag than the crab fried rice. Have any of our readers dined at Lily? I might have to add it to my list.

For the full story, head here. It's interesting to think about how restaurants and individual dishes can go viral in the 21st century in a way that they never could before, and how a restaurateur might have to make unpopular decisions in order to preserve the integrity of their business.