The Toughest Table in America
It's 6 a.m. on a February morning in the flyspeck town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and the wind swoops down State Street like a bird of prey, carrying the snow along with it. Outside Talula's Table, Daniel Kirkpatrick waits, hoping to beat the 7 a.m. opening of the restaurant's phone reservation line.
"My parents paid me $30 to stand out here and reserve a table," says Kirkpatrick, a Colorado teenager on vacation with his family. "Sounds crazy, but they told me to come back every morning until there was an opening."
By day, Talula's, 35 miles from Philadelphia, is a prepared-food shop that sells everything from artisan cheeses and duck rillettes to grilled quail and lobster pot pies. At night, it turns into a B.Y.O.B. restaurant serving eight-course feasts assembled as meticulously as a cabinetmaker constructs a fine piece of furniture.
Regulars joke that it's easier to score dinner at Per Se in Manhattan or the French Laundry in Napa Valley than it is to snag "the table"-Talula's seats eight to 12 people at its longleaf pine table each night. And they're right: Per Se and the French Laundry accept reservations two months out. As of September 1, 2007, Talula's was booked through July 31, 2008, and had stopped taking inquiries. At 7 a.m. on January 2, the restaurant began accepting reservations for the rest of the year. By 9 a.m., every night was full. Talula's now has a rolling system, taking reservations a year ahead to the numerical date. Which is why hopefuls from as far off as the Rockies stand vigil at dawn.
Plenty of restaurants are hard to get into-a handful of websites now sell reservations at hot New York spots-but small, out-of-the-way places rarely see this much demand. Talula's single table has caused a feeding frenzy among foodies, who are thrilled to pay $90 a head for the tasting menu and cheese board.
Talula's is an unpretentious storefront in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania's horse country, sausaged between Picone Beauty & Wellness and the Half-Moon Saloon, where a Yuengling draught is $3.25 during happy hour.
Yet diners have included chefs, writers, tycoons, musicians, mushroom farmers, plastic surgeons, and actors. John Turturro traveled down from Brooklyn with his wife, Kathie Borowitz, on Valentine's Day; a friend had praised Talula's food so lavishly that Turturro had to see for himself.
"I was a little dubious at first, but the dinner surpassed my highest expectations," Turturro said after a banquet of egg custard with Jonah crab, exotic mushroom risotto, snails in rigatoni farci, roast pompano, osso buco and house-smoked bacon, lamb and wildflower honey, and an array of winter blue cheeses.
"Each dish was a separate love affair," Turturro said. "It was the kind of a meal you'd request before your execution."
Talula's cuisine is prepared by Bryan Sikora, a 38-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate who apprenticed under Nora Pouillon at Nora's, the eminent all-organic bistro in Washington. A kind of John Coltrane of the kitchen, he improvises with textures and flavors, making unexpected combinations work with disconcerting justesse. Sikora changes his fare every six weeks to reflect the seasons and his expanding cadre of local growers and producers.
He grew up in Pennsylvania coal country, where Rolling Rock flowed freely, but fresh food was scarce. "I got interested in cooking because I was always hungry," Sikora says.
Sikora met Aimee Olexy, his wife and business partner, in 1992 at a hotel in Boulder, Colorado. He was the head chef; she ran the whole hotel. A restaurant worker since age 13, Olexy skipped much of 10th grade to sell bagels with sprouts and scrambled eggs at Grateful Dead concerts.
Together, the pair worked at inns and cafes in Denver; Eugene, Oregon; and Cape Cod before settling in Philadelphia and signing on with Stephen Starr, the city's high-concept restaurateur. While Olexy managed Starr's empire, Sikora presided over the galley at Starr's Moroccan outpost, Tangerine.
In 2001, they quit. With a government loan of $45,000 and little more than mountain bikes for collateral, they opened Django, a boutique restaurant in Society Hill, pioneering Philly's renaissance in chef-run, B.Y.O.B. establishments. Casual and affordable, Django offered European-based fare, with the menu driven by the season. It reaped national acclaim from the New York Times ("may be the hottest ticket in town") and the Los Angeles Times. Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan called it "one of the region's best restaurants, period, dollar for dollar or by any other important measure."
Alas, Django had only 38 seats and no liquor license, so profits were slim. In 2005, Sikora and Olexy sold the restaurant. Seeking a more rustic setting in which to raise their infant daughter, Annalee Talula Rae, they moved to Olexy's hometown in the Brandywine Valley.
They bought and gutted a vacant shoe store in Kennett Square, which bills itself as the mushroom capital of the world. (The town produces more than 40 percent of the nation's mushrooms.) Talula's opened last spring and was an immediate and unexpected sensation. The table filled up with Django groupies and epicures who had read about the place on foodie blogs. When LaBan wrote that dinner at Talula's had been his most memorable meal of the year, the reservation line jammed. A harried Olexy came up with the current scheme. "Otherwise," she says, "people would have booked Fridays and Saturdays 10 years into the future." The names on Talula's waiting list take up an entire office wall.
Aside from staking out the joint, Olexy says the surest way to secure a table in 2009 is to call Talula's the moment it opens. There is a little-known second option. Twice a week, Olexy seats parties of two to four in the kitchen at Talula's invitation-only chef's table. Crafty out-of-towners might consider overnighting a set of bootleg Dead CDs-along with a subtle reservation request.Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.