The Tale of Audrey Claire Taichman

Philadelphia knows Audrey Claire Taichman as the spirited, pioneering It Girl behind two of the city’s most successful restaurants. But that’s just the beginning of her story.

Audrey Taichman at Twenty Manning Grill. Photograph by Chris Crisman; hair and makeup by Megan Ambroch.

Audrey Taichman at Twenty Manning Grill. Photograph by Chris Crisman; hair and makeup by Megan Ambroch.

THE THING ABOUT trying to tell an Audrey Taichman story is that it’s very hard to know where to start. Or, more precisely, which Audrey Taichman story to start with, because good Audrey stories are legion.

Once, Audrey’s dad took her to an orientation at a culinary school in Philadelphia at which the school’s director got up and asked the crowd: “How many of you here want to open up your own restaurant?” Audrey and a few others raised their hands. “Well, that’s not going to happen,” he said, in what was probably meant to be some real talk aimed at a room full of naive kids. Audrey looked at her dad, who grabbed her hand and said, “Let’s get out of here.” And then Audrey went and opened a restaurant.

Once, when Audrey opened her second restaurant, it turned out to be so much work, so terribly overwhelming, that she would escape every night to go up to her office, put her head down on the edge of the desk, and cry, making sure the mascara-stained tears would drip, drip, drip straight down to the floor and not ruin her face before it was time to go back out to greet tables.

Once, Audrey fought with her older sister Leslie — her best friend — over sperm donors.

Once, Audrey had a Star Wars-themed wedding. She was Princess Leia, and she married Han Solo in her house, under a chuppah.

Once, Audrey hosted one of the biggest, coolest Philadelphia parties of the year, with almost 1,000 attendees, less than a month after giving birth.

Once, Audrey went from having no children to having one baby and three sets of twins, within the span of about 18 months. (“And a cat. Don’t forget Smudge.”)

Once, Audrey spent nearly two years politely avoiding a journalist who would call her and email her and ask to meet, because it made her so nervous, the idea that someone wanted to tell these stories — the whole story of Audrey Taichman. Especially when she is herself still shell-shocked by it all, still in disbelief. Which is understandable: The hero in a tale like this might make one, maybe two big, bold decisions that change everything. But Audrey has made nothing but big, bold decisions, one right after another — decisions that have propelled her life in remarkable directions while also impacting the city’s food scene, the arts … Philly culture as we know it, really. It’s a hell of a story.

And so maybe the place to start is simply at the beginning.

AUDREY TAICHMAN, in case you didn’t know, is Audrey Claire Taichman, the dark-haired, dark-eyed, effervescent owner of the eponymous 20-year-old Rittenhouse restaurant, as well as 16-year-old Twenty Manning Grill, which is right across the street. Twenty years old is basically geriatric in the Philadelphia restaurant world, but Audrey’s places possess a certain agelessness that’s allowed them to live comfortably outside the frenzy of the younger, buzzier, brasher hot spots. And if consistently packing two restaurants nearly every night — with a wait, often as not — for two decades is a triumph on its own, it’s especially remarkable when you realize that Audrey is 46 right now, which means she opened Audrey Claire when she was 26. (Think about the 26-year-olds in your life right now and just let that percolate a bit.)

Audrey also owns Cook, the pristine little studio kitchen up the block, which she opened in 2011 so that chefs from all over the city could take a night off from their own restaurants and conduct two-hour cooking demos — for die-hard foodies, total ingenues, anyone willing to pay for a seat, which might cost $60 or $185, depending on who’s teaching. And finally, there’s what has become her splashiest gig of all: Feastival, an annual September fund-raiser for Philadelphia FringeArts. It’s also a party of Gatsby-esque proportions, a mash-up of artists and revelers and gallons of booze and Philly power players (Ed Rendell, Phillies wives, Jim Kenney, Stephen Starr) and naked dancers in metallic body paint and food made by the city’s best chefs.

These days, creating a spectacle of such scope requires year-round planning and a full-time staff, but Feastival began as a sort of outlier project for Audrey in 2009, a collaboration with a trio of FringeArts honchos — Nick Stuccio (Fringe president), Richard Vague (board president) and Tony Forte (Feastival co-chair). In the wake of the 2008 crash, they’d been looking for ways to diversify the organization’s funding, and Audrey, a longtime friend of Vague’s and a lover of the arts, was anxious to help. “What you need is a signature event,” she told Vague — a party so great that it wouldn’t just pull in the artists, the foodies, but also the movers and shakers … and the money. “Okay,” Vague said, humoring her because he knows a lot of people who talk big. Most don’t follow through. “Before we knew it,” Forte says, “Audrey was off and running.”

The party raised some $235,000 that first year. (The goal had been $25,000.) Audrey got the booze, the tables, the linens, the flowers, the sponsors. She talked Michael Solomonov and Stephen Starr into co-hosting the event with her. Together, they convinced 25 more chefs and restaurateurs to donate their time, food, staffs and talents for the night. Later this month, the sixth annual Feastival will feature closer to 80 chefs.

Audrey can be very persuasive.

“Her passions in the moment are intoxicating. And people are attracted to passionate, vivacious people,” Stuccio says. “Combine that with not taking no for an answer, and it’s a winning formula.” He doesn’t mean that in a strong-armed, Godfather sense. If anything — I’ll hear this more than once — it’s Audrey who really doesn’t like to say no to people. “To a fault, almost,” says Rob Wasserman, who co-owns Rouge. “She gives her time, money, advice. …” But you don’t get to where Audrey is without persistence, some chutzpah.

“She’s an alpha dog,” says Ed Rendell, a friend since his mayoral days. “She’s aggressive. Energetic. Dynamic. Those things sometimes turn people off, but Audrey never does. That’s because she has a combination of charm and grace and intelligence and a sense of humor.” Oh, and also, he adds, “all-American good looks.”

So. That’s Audrey Taichman. It’s tough to overstate what a mighty space she has come to occupy in this city, beginning in the food world — back when the Philly restaurant scene was barely a sliver of what it is today. This was 1995, the same time Stephen Starr was debuting the Continental, before Rouge, before Vetri, long before Pub & Kitchen. In Rittenhouse, there was a little wine bar called Beaujolais and, in the space where Audrey Claire sits now, a junky five-and-dime. A dump. Audrey, at the age of 25, looked at the dump and said, “That is going to be my restaurant.”

She was not, at that point, a businesswoman or a chef or even a well-connected foodie. She was a kid, a Narberth native, the daughter of a Canadian dental pathologist who’d moved his family from Toronto in 1972 to teach at Penn’s dental school. She was the youngest of three girls and two boys. She was a Lower Merion grad who’d earned a political science degree from Temple and spent some time waitressing before falling in love with the food world and the people it attracted — the artists, the creative spirits. Audrey decided she wasn’t going to law school or medical school like all of her siblings had, but that she was going to run her own restaurant.

“I was afraid to tell my family,” she says. “I finally asked my parents to come over for dinner, and I made them a spinach and feta pie” — she burned it — “and I told them I wanted to go to culinary school and open a restaurant. And they were so supportive.”

They took her to the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College for an orientation, which is where her father yanked her from the lecture hall after the program director gave the speech that shat all over her dream. After that, she kept waitressing. For years, she worked at Friday Saturday Sunday and TGI Fridays. She worked at Magnolia Cafe. She worked at Rock Lobster. And then she decided it was time.

“I just figured: This is it. I was fierce. I was so young. And I had nothing to lose, so there was nothing to really fear.”

She found four investors who gave her $5,000 apiece, enough for a down payment. She got a small business loan for the rest — it cost $180,000 to open that place — and hired the chef away from Rock Lobster. Together they created the menu, the ordering system, everything. She had a contractor friend who brought her vision — Europe meets Soho — to life. She fought with L&I over the then-foreign concept of entire walls of windows that would open onto the street. “They were like, ‘Open windows? You’re going to have flies!’” She laughs. Audrey persuaded them.

There was no cash for a liquor license. There wasn’t even a name until the day before the opening. Nothing felt right. And then her sister Susan said, “What if it’s just Audrey Claire? You know, like Ann Taylor.”

On opening day in June of 1996, something about seeing that name etched on the door set her off. It might have been cold feet; it might have been sheer exhaustion; it might have been what Richard Vague once described as the quintessential Audrey paradox: “She is very, very brave, and she does things that are very brave, but while she’s doing them, she’s constantly expressing fear.” Whatever it was, she lost it. Started crying. “It was like, ‘That’s my name on the door. And this place is going to suck. And it’s my name.’ And you know, Claire was a fat girl’s name. And Audrey was always an ugly name.”

Um, what?

“It’s true. My father went on sabbatical, and my family lived in Britain for a year when I was in fourth grade. There, Audrey is like the Matilda, the Bertha of names. And there it was. On my restaurant.”

She belly-laughs. Because now, she gets letters from people telling her they’ve named their daughter after her restaurant. People stop her on the street to tell her that Audrey Claire is where they had their first dates with their husbands, their wives. The place was an instant hit. The moment she opened the doors, there was a line. A two-hour wait, on the very first day. “I can’t believe it worked,” she says. “Sometimes I wish I had stopped with that.” She laughs again.

But seriously, she says. The day she opened Audrey Claire was the best moment of her life. She corrects herself: one of the best moments.

Joshua, Jack, Audrey, Joe, Audrey's mother Louise and Nathan in Star Wars garb. Photograph courtesy of Audrey Taichman.

Joshua, Jack, Audrey, Joe, Audrey’s mother Louise and Nathan in Star Wars garb. Photograph courtesy of Audrey Taichman.

THE FIRST TIME I have coffee with Audrey, it’s a cold February afternoon, and she’s wearing jeans, fur-trimmed booties, no makeup. We’re at Food & Friends, the market across the street from Audrey Claire, and we’re both a little nervous — she because she’s fairly sure she doesn’t want me to write about her, and I because this feels like a date with someone I’ve been e-flirting with for almost two years. Of course, most of the emails we exchanged consisted of me asking to meet in person and her gently, apologetically putting me off. But somehow, we’d also grown chatty. “When everyone meets Audrey, you immediately think she’s your best friend,” Lynn Ozer told me once. Lynn is Audrey’s banker — they became friends while she was putting together the money for Twenty Manning.

In fairness, a lot had happened in Audrey’s life in the 18 months since I’d first reached out: a birth. A marriage. Two moves. Life-altering loss. Aside from the barest details, I knew nothing of these things when I was emailing her — but then, few people outside her close circle of friends did. Through it all, Audrey was basically the same person she’d always been, those friends say: warmhearted. Funny. A force of nature, what Vague calls a “free-range circus” of activity — a circus that began with the opening of Twenty Manning.

Audrey wasn’t looking to open a second restaurant. She had nothing to prove. If she’d stopped with Audrey Claire, she would have left a permanent stamp on the Philadelphia food scene. “She was one of the first restaurateurs to see potential in Center City,” longtime restaurant publicist Clare Pelino wrote to me. Audrey Claire helped launch the city’s BYO craze, showing people — customers, restaurateurs, L&I — just how transformative a smart little neighborhood spot could be. It also showed Craig LaBan, who wrote in 1999 that Audrey Claire had filled “with gusto” the city’s untapped need for a great, affordable neighborhood place, and for sidewalk dining.

Those first few years in business were a sort of magical time for Audrey — a time when she was there every night greeting customers, when reviewers were gentle (“Even if you had a shitty dish, they wouldn’t dwell on it”), when there was no Yelp, when all she had to really think about was the night’s specials and keeping her dating life out of the gossip columns. (No dice on the latter: For years she was the vivacious, curvaceous It Girl who dated exciting foodies like Marc Vetri and, later, the raffish Jonathan Makar of Snackbar.)

As she tells it, opening Twenty Manning in 1999 wasn’t a conscious move to grow a mini-empire, but a decision that sort of fell into her lap. The owners of Beaujolais, the wine bar across the street, wanted to sell. “That’s where everyone would go when we had, like, a two-hour wait at Audrey Claire,” Audrey recalls, “and it was sort of like, ‘Duh.’” Someone was going to make the money, so why not her? So she bought it. “And then it was basically the worst thing in my life,” she says. Cue the secret office mascara-tears.

The place was huge. Audrey Claire had 40 seats; Twenty Manning, which she had turned from a wine bar into a sleek Asian bistro, had 85 — plus a bar. Wine storage. A computer system. “You know what it was? Twenty Manning was a real restaurant. And I freely admit, I had no idea what I was doing. We were turning out shit. I didn’t know how to work the computers. For three straight years, I was like, ‘Somebody buy it. Please. Get me out of here.’”

Of course, in the end Twenty Manning survived and in 2010 morphed into Twenty Manning Grill, a more au courant American bistro concept. Now it’s a mainstay. Audrey gives nearly all the credit to her Twenty Manning chef, Kiong Banh, an unflappable, soft-spoken 60-year-old who came to her after Marc Vetri introduced them. Banh cooked for a couple of years before Audrey made him her business partner. “He saved me,” she says. “He was the turning point for that restaurant. He still keeps it all running — I’m so grateful for him.”

It is, she will say more than once, all of her people — the Feastival crew, the bartenders, managers, chefs, waitstaff, many of whom are going on a decade with her — who make her life work. Well, she allows, the people and her phone, which she attempts to turn off at 4 p.m. so she can devote herself to the kids. She tries not to reboot until they’re in bed; much of her work gets done between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m.

So, yeah. Life now is much different than it was when I first emailed Audrey. For one, she’s maybe a bit wearier, a little warier. She’s definitely wary about this story, so much so that after we finish our coffee at Food & Friends that day, I leave thinking that’s it for us. Audrey has so many concerns: that she’ll come off as self-important; that she’ll swear too much; that she’s tempting fate to say that she’s happy; and, most painfully, that it might look to anyone as if she’s using the worst thing that has ever happened in her life — well, using it for anything.

You can understand, maybe, why she looks back at those early Audrey Claire days as “magical” — because they were, in the way that life is magical when you’re young and feted and unfettered and unafraid.

“Now,” Audrey says, “I fear doing new projects.” She laughs. “Because I have everything to lose.”

Audrey at Audrey Claire during construction in 1996; Leslie Taichman with her twins. Photographs courtesy of Audrey Taichman

Audrey at Audrey Claire during construction in 1996; Leslie Taichman with her twins. Photographs courtesy of Audrey Taichman

ONCE, NOT LONG after Twenty Manning opened, Audrey, her sister Leslie and their brother Darren sat on the bench outside her restaurant. They saw a guy in scrubs walking down the street — tall, handsome, with deep dimples. He was pulling a couple of kids in a Radio Flyer wagon. “I looked at him and said to my sister, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ and then said to my brother, ‘Why can’t you set me up with a cute doctor like that?’ Then my brother stood up and was like, ‘Hi, Joe.’ They worked together! I died, I was so embarrassed.” They would turn out to be neighbors; Audrey would befriend Joe’s wife and kids, and they’d all come to play a bigger role in her life than Audrey would have guessed. (But that’s a story for later.)

When it came to men, Audrey had walked all the way up to the brink more than once. She wanted what she grew up with: a big, tight family, the loving husband, loads of kids. “But,” Lynn Ozer says, “she knew what was right for her, and what wasn’t.” By the time she was in her late 30s and neither the man nor the babies had happened, Audrey decided to start the process of getting pregnant on her own. Only she wasn’t exactly on her own, because Leslie — who was one year older and also unmarried — had decided to get pregnant, too, using a sperm donor. (“We tried to get a two-fer — didn’t happen.”) Together they pored over the catalog of donors, weighing the pros and cons of family backgrounds, education, talents, passions, looks. Not surprisingly, the sisters liked the same profiles. “And we fought,” Audrey says. “‘I want that one!’ ‘No, I want that one!’”

In the end, there were three contenders, and Leslie, who wanted to get pregnant immediately while Audrey would wait for a few years, chose first. She went through four rounds of IVF before conceiving twin boys, Nathan and Joshua. (“Joshua was my name — I gave it to her,” Audrey says.)

It was while Leslie was pregnant that she learned she had breast cancer. The babies were born, and the treatment began: chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries. It looked like it had all worked, that the cancer was gone. And then, 12 months after her final chemo session, it came back with a vengeance. It spread to her brain. For the next two years, she’d have more treatments — terrible ones, like full-brain radiation — and an MRI every three months, to see if any of it was working.

Once, Audrey and Leslie were sitting in the hospital, waiting for MRI results. There was Leslie, literally shaking in fear. And there was the neurology oncologist, click-clacking down the hallway in high heels to where the sisters sat, and then breathlessly relating to them how terrible her weekend was: She’d missed her bus; her husband had broken his foot; her parents were coming to town. Audrey kept waiting for the terrible part. “But then that was it. And she was the doctor. And my sister and I were sitting right there, and then we just looked at each other and started laughing. It was so crazy.” It was so crazy that, years later, Audrey still just refuses to sweat — or, God forbid, complain about — “the small shit.”

By the time the boys were a couple years old, it looked like the treatments were working. The tumors in Leslie’s brain weren’t going away, but they seemed to be under control. So at Leslie’s urging, Audrey decided to make her baby move. She was 44 when she got pregnant. Both sisters were ecstatic. Two weeks later, Leslie started to lose her memory.

From that point, Leslie got very sick, very quickly. That’s when Audrey left her place in the city and moved to a drab little apartment in Narberth, where she’d take care of the twins and be near her sister, who was at their parents’ home. It was a wretched time — watching from her dreary perch in that crappy apartment the agony of her parents, and her sister, and her nephews. Then there was being pregnant, the hormones, wondering if she would always be alone. Her son Jack’s birth in August 2013 was, for Audrey — for the whole family — a bright light, a shining reprieve from the misery. One of the best days of her life. “One of the best decisions I ever made.”

A FEW MONTHS after Jack was born, there would come another reprieve — although Audrey wouldn’t see it that way then. Joe Friedberg, a.k.a. Dr. Radio Flyer, emailed her at the suggestion of a mutual friend: Now divorced, he was thinking of moving out toward Narberth. How was she liking it, he wanted to know? Audrey, six months postpartum and not in any sort of mind-set to flirt, replied, in essence, “No, save yourself, you’re a city guy, don’t do it. Bye.” But the emailing continued, and Audrey realized that perhaps he wasn’t solely interested in an apartment. She invited him to see her place at the end of a long day, during the kids’ bath time. “I wanted him to see my real life, to see me at my worst.” Joe drove over through a snowstorm, walked in the door, and immediately dropped to the floor to play with the kids. “I decided to leave the kids with the nanny, and we went out and had margaritas.” She laughs. “I was madly in love with him by the end of the night.”

Joe says: “I fell in love with her the minute I saw her. I’d been single for four years. I guess I thought that was it, that I’d just be married to my work,” which is thoracic
surgeon-in-chief for the University of Maryland health system. Their first date was February of 2014. Three months later, Joe proposed, surprising Audrey one night. He was wearing scrubs.

“He knew that Leslie was dying,” Audrey says. “He wanted her to know that her children would be taken care of. He’s a mensch.”

The night they got engaged, in May, Audrey went to see Leslie. “At this point, she was very, very sick. Joe wanted me to take the ring and rub it against her face, so she would know.” Leslie, in bed, opened her eyes, and smiled. “Really?” She mouthed the word. “We didn’t tell anybody else at that point, just her,” Audrey says. “We knew, and she knew, and that was it.”

Leslie died in June.

Audrey and Joe Friedberg at Twenty Manning for their wedding celebration. Photograph by Ashley E. Labonde/Wide Eyed Studios

Audrey and Joe Friedberg at Twenty Manning for their wedding celebration. Photograph by Ashley E. Labonde/Wide Eyed Studios

THE FIRST TIME Audrey and Joe got married, it was December of 2014. They wanted a small ceremony at home, so that Audrey’s son and Leslie’s boys could be involved, along with Joe’s twin 16-year-olds and twin 21-year-olds. (Yes, that’s three sets of twins, total.) The theme was Star Wars — Audrey’s idea. Baby Jack was Chewbacca, the twins were Jedi knights, and Audrey’s brother Darren officiated as C-3PO.

The second time they got married, it was New Year’s Eve, under the stamped-tin ceiling at Twenty Manning. The vibe was jubilant — a real party, with all their closest friends, including Joe’s ex, Jo, and Jo’s boyfriend, Marc. (“My ex-in-laws!” Audrey says. “They’re amazing.”) The couple would exchange vows at midnight. Audrey was gorgeous in a fitted white dress and a simple birdcage veil set off against her dark hair.

She’d asked her old friend Ed Rendell to perform the ceremony, and he’d accepted. Only the couple had forgotten that they needed to get the marriage license three days prior to the wedding. “It was like, clink-clink-clink, ‘Okay, everybody, we’re getting married now!’” Audrey says. “And then Ed was like, ‘By the way, I can’t officially marry you.’” It was hilarious, she says. (Some brides might not think so. Pfffft, Audrey would say. Small shit.) And so the show went on, with Rendell saying things like, “Will you take Joe to be your lawfully wedded husband, when you’re legally allowed to do so?”

The third time they got married, it was a few days later, with Rendell again, although this time it was in his office, with his staff standing as witnesses. The bride wore a skullcap and flannel. The Guv stood off to the side, grinning widely, while Audrey and Joe embraced.

A few months after the third wedding, Audrey and Joe took their totally legal, signed marriage license to a courtroom in Philadelphia, where they would need it in order to officially adopt Joshua and Nathan — the end of a long process tangled up in bureaucratic red tape. The clerk said, “You had Ed Rendell do your wedding? How did you swing that?” Audrey answered, “He came for the food.”

After that, the boys were officially hers. It was, she tells me over coffee at La Colombe this past summer, her fourth defining moment. There was Audrey Claire, and there was Jack, and there was Joe, and now there was this. “I told the boys, ‘Now I have four best days.’”

A phone call interrupts our coffee: It’s the electrician, and Audrey has to take it, because he’s looking at the wiring in her house and she worries about fires. There are, as ever, many worries — about not being in her restaurants enough; about making sure her kids are nice; about finding good babysitters — and they are a theme of many conversations. It’s something we bond over, actually — the ratcheted-up level of anxiety that comes with parenting, with being a working parent.

But the flip side of worry, as any parent can tell you, is gratitude. To say that Audrey is keenly aware of the good stuff in her life is an understatement. Feeling “unbelievably lucky” is another theme in our conversations, though Audrey, who is somewhat superstitious, is a little afraid to talk about her luck, because she’s still stunned by it all — the restaurants, Feastival, her husband, the children. There’s also the grief that swirls up and makes it hard to talk: guilt, the crazy joy that Leslie’s boys and Jack bring her, then grief again. It all sometimes overtakes her. “Bittersweet” is the only word she uses as much as “luck.”

They say that fortune favors the brave, and I say something to that effect — that maybe she isn’t here mostly by luck, but because she’s made some pretty audacious moves. “The big shit,” she says. “I guess that’s me, how my life has always been. Nobody does it bigger. I have the biggest boobs. I have the biggest family. Everything, big.”

She laughs. I laugh. Because, you know, some of it is the bigness and the boldness. But much of what’s made Audrey’s life what it is is just the Audreyness. “She’s a force of nature,” Stuccio says. “And fun-loving and sweet and gregarious as hell.”

I ask her what she’d like to do next, if she could do anything. It starts out fairly small. “Maybe find a way to have a little more downtime with Joe.” And then: “One day, maybe I’ll put the children to bed, they’ll be asleep by 9 p.m., and I’ll get dressed and go to the restaurants.” Nine o’clock is the restaurant sweet spot, when the first wave of diners is leaving and the second is coming. She hopes that happens again — that she can be seen in her places, like in the old days. “But you know, I keep telling myself: I did that for 18 years. Now is different. For now, I just don’t want to miss a second with those kids.”

And then: “You know, I’d really like to do more things to promote the arts in Philly.”

And then, a little bigger: “In a few years? I don’t know. Maybe another restaurant. I always need something, as my projects get more manageable.”

And then, bigger: “If I had free time, I’d really like to start some sort of program that helped families dealing with cancer, you know, like paying for them to have a hotel room during treatments, or serving dinners for single moms doing chemo.”

And bigger: “Or sometimes I think I’d like to start a mobile pet spaying and neutering business, like a little clinic on wheels. You know, we’d go down to Mexico … if I had the time and money. Is that the craziest idea?”

Yes, it is. It’s the craziest idea. Or, you know. The next good Audrey story.

Originally published as “Audrey” in the September 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.