On my first night at the Love, I’m sitting there at the bar, and it’s crowded. Loud. Warm from the closeness of the people packing into the small front space with the small square bar — just eight stools, all of them taken, with more people standing around. The dining room is rapidly filling, and every two minutes, the door opens, and you can hear the rush of street noise for just a second.
Normally, none of this would be surprising. It’s a new place in Rittenhouse Square. It has some big names behind it. You should expect the crowds. But what makes this surprising?
It’s 5:30 on a Wednesday.
The Love is a collaboration between Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy — their third, including the two city Talula’s (Garden and Daily). And even if you didn’t know that walking in, you could tell if you knew a thing or two about Philly restaurants. The menu (very New American, at least on the surface, plus an extraordinary cheese plate) is so Olexy, all the entrées should spell out her name. The space is comfortingly retro, middle-aged cool, and three degrees edgier than a shopping mall Maggiano’s all at the same time, but with a current of understated swank that feels like uncut El Vez-era Starr — a theme restaurant whose theme is Restaurant Circa 2004.
And none of that is an insult. It’s just the way things are. Aimee Olexy is a visionary who knows what she likes and what she’s about. Stephen Starr is a creature designed as if by a benevolent restaurant god to create successful concepts and execute them with a smoothness that seems almost preternatural. And if the Love is his big return to Philly after having one of the best years of his long and storied career, it’s the mark of his maturity and good sense that he made something both risky — a purely local restaurant with a divisive name, opened in the shell of a failed restaurant — and seemingly built to capitalize on the one food trend that never stops paying off: making rich people pay a premium for American comfort food burnished by a kitchen that takes it all very, very seriously.
That first night, I had a very good bourbon drink (which, in a move I absolutely love the bar for, was called just “A Very Good Bourbon Drink”) made with Jim Beam Black, some bitters, vermouth and a splash of cider, and a bowl of curry pumpkin soup with cilantro and a snaking twist of fermented lime puree, all of which came off as muddled and dull. The gnocco fritto arrived as big, exploded pillows of deep-fried potato dumplings, crisp enough to crack, served with folds of unexciting house-made mortadella and a bowl of onion jam that had the texture of Chinese hoisin sauce.
None of it was bad, and both plates showed a little bit of clever thinking that elevated them without complicating them, but I didn’t, well, love any of it. As I walked out the door, I was convinced that this was just another high-profile dud — a big err-on-the-safe-side money machine.
But I was wrong, because the Love is very much one of those restaurants where what you order matters. Where the timing of everything matters. Where the service (smiling, joking, helpful almost to a fault) can tie it all together and keep things light while the plates of smoked trout with kale and pecans and fried pierogi with caviar circulate throughout the room.
So I went back and ate ricotta-stuffed ravioli with squash and hazelnuts and appreciated how smoothly this kind of modern Italian slotted into the menu alongside all that kale and caviar — the ravioli chewy and soft and perfectly rustic-gone-Hollywood on the plate. I thought, Oh, this is better, and then I tried the lobster spaghetti with its big chunks of perfectly cooked claw and tail meat folded in among the noodles, the whole thing drenched in a lobster bisque so thick you could eat it with a fork, and seriously considered just ordering three more bowls and calling it a night.
The house-made rolls arrived warm from the oven with a side of chive butter. The cheese plate (an Olexy specialty) came with one of the soft cheeses sculpted into the shape of a tiny mouse. There was short rib, glazed in cola for a blood-sugar spike of sweetness, shredded in a stroganoff sauce with wild mushrooms and poured over wide Dutch noodles. And fried chicken, too, juicy inside its crisp-but-not-shattering jacket, served with an admirable version of Mississippi Comeback sauce (a chili-spiked rémoulade that should be so much more popular than it is), passable collards that could have used a bit more vinegar, and the best grits I’ve had in Philly, hands down.
The Love — Starr’s 35th restaurant, Olexy’s vision for a neighborhood joint made for one of Philly’s most staid and stodgy neighborhoods — is an odd place. It isn’t perfect, but there’s some charm in its imperfection, and so much of it works better than it should. It’s a hodgepodge — the Italian pastas and American cheeses, the Dutch noodles and collard greens and kale and Comeback sauce, all these different things, all these different inspirations. None of it should have worked together (and occasionally it doesn’t), but like some kind of schizophrenic potluck, in the moment and on the best nights, it just does.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country