Talula’s Table, the Kennett Square restaurant that’s been called “the toughest reservation in the US,” is celebrating a decade in business.
It was just over 10 years ago that restaurateur Aimee Olexy and then-husband and chef Brian Sikora sold their much-lauded Queen Village BYOB Django and decamped from Philadelphia, trading in city life to make a go of bringing gourmet food to the Chester County countryside.
The gambit worked, of course.
Within a couple of months, their 1000-square-foot retail market and cafe — named after their young daughter, Annalee Talula — was buzzing with customers throughout the day. And at night, when the cafe transformed into a cozy restaurant with one 12-person table, the spot proved to be even more popular.
Word spread quickly about Sikora’s refined-yet-rustic tasting menu, bolstered by Olexy’s cheese plates and charming hospitality. After Craig LaBan filed a rave review, bookings were off the charts. In December 2007, Olexy announced she was implementing the now-infamous policy: Each morning at 7 a.m., she would answer the phone and take a single reservation for the entire table — for exactly one year from the current date.
A decade later, “the Table,” as Olexy calls it, is still going strong. It’s been written up everywhere from the the New York Times Magazine (“Spiritual Retreat,” 2008) to Conde Nast Traveler (“The World’s Toughest Restaurant Reservations,” 2014). There have been changes — Sikora departed after the couple divorced, Olexy returned to the city to open Talula’s Garden and Talula’s Daily in partnership with Stephen Starr — but the reservation policy for the Kennett Square original is still in place.
Billy Penn sat down with Olexy for a look back at what led to her success and a look forward to what the future might hold — plus tips on how to get a seat at Talula’s Table without waiting a year.
Cafes that turn into sit-down restaurants at night are popular now (Hungry Pigeon, Double Knot, Res Ipsa, High Street on Market, etc.), but they definitely weren’t in 2007. How did you arrive at that concept?
I was planning on opening a cheese shop. There was nothing in the area back then, no Wegmans or Whole Foods. So I wanted to have a market where you could get cheese and baguettes and beautiful salads, and hang out and have coffee too. And then a couple nights a week you could have this plated dinner that would close with an awesome cheese course. We opened and within a month, we were doing dinners every night.
Has the price of the dinner changed?
When we opened I think it cost $85 per person. Now it’s $108. Now it’s eight courses plus hors d’oeuvres and mignardises, so like 10 courses — that’s what Per Se would call it. At the start we didn’t do the extras, and we’d lead people to the table right away. But we learned that it takes a while for people to get there on time together.
You added a second option — people can book the kitchen table, too?
We seat up to 12 at the main table and another eight in the kitchen. It happened early on. Staff always used to hang out in the kitchen while the dinners were happening, we would pull up stools. It was holiday season the first year and one of the workers, Rosalie, asked if her parents could come by, too. We said, let’s make it nice for them, so we set the table cute and put flower vases out. I remember thinking, “Oh, we should sell this.”
What was it like when Brian left, in 2010?
Emotionally it was tough, because I was going through a divorce. I remember thinking, “How do people keep their shit together, working and going through this?” But even though Brian was an excellent chef, his role — though critical — was more single-focused than mine, I was the one who dealt with the day-to-day of the market and all of that. And we already had a talented staff in place, we had been open three years. We were already at the point where Brian could go away on vacation.
What sparked your return to the city, partnering with Stephen Starr on Talula’s Garden and Talula’s Daily?
Stephen and I were at [Vetri’s] Alex’s Lemonade fundraiser and we were riffing on the possibility. He said, “Let’s get more serious on this, let’s look at spaces.” I did miss the city. Also I love wine, so I was thinking about how to get back to that.
Was there a question of whether you could split your time? How often do you come to Philly?
The idea of not being physically present was hard but I wanted to spread word about the Table at a different level, have it be like a mothership. I still live in Kennett Square and work at the cafe — at the coffee bar or the register or the cheese case, that’s my favorite thing. And I’m in the city almost every day, at least four or five days a week, working service. Dinners at the Table, I do a few a week.
Who runs Talula’s Table dinners when you’re not there?
We have a great staff, a culture, but there are three key players. Claire Twesten, the pastry chef who’s been there since we opened. Anna Pennington, who runs front of the house, has been with us eight years — she started as a barista. And Ryan McQuillan, the head chef. He’s been with us for a year but he’s an old soul. He gets it.
And you’re still booked out a year in advance?
Yes, but there are also always some cancellations. A Friday or Saturday night, forget it. But on Tuesday or Wednesday, you can get in. We post cancellations in the shop and also on Instagram — or you can email email@example.com or call anytime during the day to find out openings. And it’s a great weekday dinner, because we run it like clockwork: It starts at 7 and you’re done at 9:30. And then you can go see a band at a Kennett Brewing Company or just take an Uber home.
What will Talula’s Table be like in five years? Any changes you’re mulling?
I’ve been wondering if we should use OpenTable for the reservations. Right now we have this calendar where everything is done by hand, someone calls at 7 a.m. and we write it in and initial it. I love the personal interaction. But I wonder if we listed the cancellations on OpenTable, if that would be useful.
Also, it’s interesting what’s going on with the [grocery] wine licenses and stuff. I would love to have a tiny boutique wine program at the Table.
Another thing that could change in five years is we could drop the price of the dinner and showcase a different kind of experience. For years it’s been “premium” and “luxury” and some of my food interests go away from that now. Every once in awhile I joke we should just do BBQ for the next few months. But I’d have to set a date in advance, because we have the reservations a year out.