The Drama Behind Stephen Starr’s New Restaurant
IT’S EARLY MORNING on Washington Square, and the empty shell that will soon be Talula’s Garden is charged with the expectant energy of opening night at the theater. Construction crews move through the scaffolding of the new farm-to-table restaurant with a hushed and practiced bustle.
Aimee Olexy greets me at the entrance to the Art Deco building, which once housed the country’s oldest advertising agency, N.W. Ayer & Son. This was the birthplace of the immortal slogans “When it rains, it pours,” “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” and “A diamond is forever.” Panels carved into the bronze doors depict tableaux of deskbound ad executives in robes not unlike those of the pharaohs. Encircling these Ptolemaic Mad Men are the signs of the zodiac.
“I really love these doors,” says Olexy, who’s not only the gatekeeper of Talula’s Garden but also its host and co-proprietor, along with restaurateur Stephen Starr. When the joint opens on April 1st — under the sign of Aries — Olexy will be working the tables as the public face of the business, the personality of the rooms.
As she makes her rounds on this particular winter afternoon, she’s friendly toward the painters, downright courtly to the electricians, outgoing with the plumbers, a kid sister to all. She acts as if she could carry on a conversation with a gelato machine. Isabella Nicolaides, a barista at Olexy’s Kennett Square restaurant, Talula’s Table, calls her “one of those rare bosses who can continually energize, motivate and inspire their employees. She’s passionate about what she does and treats everyone on staff, from chefs to dishwashers, as though they’re integral to the whole.”
Until now, Olexy’s sumptuous cuisine has been served in quiet, unpretentious settings that make diners feel like guests in her home or, given the farmhouse feel of Talula’s Table, her general store. In contrast, the 23 urban food halls run by Starr tend to be loud and showy productions where food — as good as it often is — almost seems beside the point, a prop in the performance-art concept of the place. In an age of celebrity chefs, those in Starr’s kitchens remain largely anonymous.
The restaurants Olexy created with her then-husband, celebrated chef Bryan Sikora — offbeat BYOB pioneer Django in Society Hill and the equally innovative Talula’s Table — turned her into such a foodie darling that the couple’s divorce last year made front-page news in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Aimee creates eater utopias,” says Abby Morgan, who joined the staff of Talula’s Table shortly after its debut in 2007. “Like Rumpelstiltskin, she can spin straw into gold.” Then again, enchanted dinners at Django and Talula’s Table are the stuff of small-scale fairy tales: The former had 38 seats; the latter has 14, and only one table. Talula’s Garden will accommodate up to 168. “Aimee and Stephen are a curious alliance,” observes Craig LaBan, the Inquirer’s restaurant critic. “Both are control freaks. She’s had this whole world of independent, iconoclastic success. I just wonder how much space he’ll give her to do her thing.”