The Drama Behind Stephen Starr’s New Restaurant

After divorcing chef and partner Bryan Sikora last year, successful restaurateur Aimee Olexy—of reservation-impossible Talula’s Table—is poised to make a fresh start with Talula’s Garden. This time, she’s got Stephen Starr by her side

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.”

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  • Cris

    A brilliant and elegantly written story. I can’t wait to go to the new restaurant.

  • Lindsey

    I loved this story. What a strong woman!

  • Chris

    Aimee is obviously the brains behind Dijango and Taluls’s table. Why cant anyone just write a article on her. Who cares about her ex-husband. Does she really need to be reminded of the break-up every time someone writes and article about her.

  • Chris

    Aimee is obviously the brains behind Dijango and Taluls’s table. Why cant anyone just write a article on her. Who cares about her ex-husband. Does she really need to be reminded of the break-up every time someone writes and article about her.

  • EllenR

    For Chris: You should actually read this article before commenting on it. The ENTIRE story is about Aimee. It’s not just about her past. Her ex is only mentioned in about three paragraphs and is just an afterthought. Beautiful job by the author.

  • KatieHunter

    Ellen R is right! The writer would be disingenuous not to talk about Aime’s past! That’s as much her story as the new restaurant! Plus it’s fascinating to readers. Terrific job of putting this all in context. This was the best story I have read on Philly’s restauarnt scene and a terrific analysis of Aime’s contribution.

  • Sandy

    Fact check: Olexy never ran Starr’s empire. And can we abandon the tired old saw of food taking backseat at Starr’s restaurants? Yes, he’s not a chef, but excellent food is as much a priority to him as Garces and Vetri. He wouldn’t be as successful as he is if he thought otherwise.

  • Toto

    Aimee Olexy used to be Stephen Starr’s Director of Restaurants. I know this as a fact because I interviewed with her while working in Center City. Do you really think Starr’s food compares to the stuff served by Vetri or Garces? Even Elaine Tate wouldn’t be foolish enough to suggest that!!!

  • Jim

    I was a Philly food writer from 2000-’01 when Aimee was Starr’s director of restaurants. Sandy is mistaken on this count. She’s inventing a “new saw” by insisting Starr’s food is exceptional. In truth, he caters to a South Jersey crowd, which accounts for his success: He’s been all about volume – noise and pushing customers through the door. I sincerely hope Aimee changes all that.

  • Andrea

    Really inspiring story. I write this as a diner who has eaten at both Django and Talulas. Aimee is putting together her own 4 star restuarant empire. The inevitable followup story will be Whatever Happened To Aimee’s Ex-Husband? Last i heard he was working as a fry cook in Allentown. So sad.

  • theresa

    i’m a HUGE fan of unstrung heroes and franz lidz’s other books, and i thoroughly enjoyed this magazine feature. the more i read the hungrier i got. i hope the new talulas is as big a hit as the old one.

  • Allan

    Lovely story and Aimee sounds like a lovely woman. What a great addition to Center City dining.

  • GRUBSTREETER

    One of the previous posters nailed this perfectly. Until now Stephen Starr’s restaurants have been aimed at a downmarket South Jersey audience. The music is louder than an Elton John suit and the food is slightly better than adequate (TUNA TARTARE! AGAIN!) but never surprises or inspires. TG sounds like it will be Starr’s stab at greatness. If Olexy promises to tone down the standard Starr racket I promise to be a regular customer. My hope is that TG is worthy of this terrific article.

  • Keyser

    Olexy is A very talented and inspiring person

    “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.”
    So the complete opposite of Stephen Starr !
    I hope this match works out for her

  • le

    Aimee is a sweetie but all the breathless adoration is pure crap. It would take Aimee Olexy plus magic to coax Starr to realign his sights on integrity and cuisine. In his empire $$ come first. Emphasis on hospitality and cuisine is not Starr style.

  • Baron

    I would agree with Anonymous, but Aimee has an ace up her sleeve. As the author cleverly points out, she’s the personality of the place. If she quits, so long Talula’s Garden. Starr can skip and bully all he wants, but if Aimee leaves, there goes the restaurant. Whether he admits it or not she’s got him over a barrel.

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