Nestled across from historic Washington Square, three bird boxes sit atop the sign marking the entrance to Philadelphia's iconic restaurant enclave, Talula's Garden. As customers walk through the iron gate, they're transported to a hidden urban oasis. The city street disappears as they enter a picturesque patio, tucked away amid vines and beams of wood. Hundreds of yellow twinkling lights enlace the leaves, illuminate the quiet street, and thaw the brisk November evening. In the words of acclaimed chef and restaurateur Aimee Olexy, walking into Talula’s Garden is like transporting yourself to “a hideaway secret garden.”
In partnership with restaurateur Stephen Starr, Olexy has made a name for herself in the Philadelphia food scene through the opening of Talula’s Table, Talula’s Garden, Talula’s Daily, and most recently The Love. While Olexy says that she takes pride in the fact that many people associate her and her restaurants with being farm–to–table, her mission doesn’t end there.
“Really the mission for me, my mission, is trying to tell people to make good food choices. And in making good food choices, making a food choice that’s a little more local, it’s more seasonal, and it’s more sustainable,” Olexy says. “For me the farm–to–table aspect of it is a piece of that bigger mission … if farm–to–table opens up our overall global food awareness, awesome.”
Olexy adds that she doesn’t want to be “uber preachy about it,” but rather wants to make an impact on individuals when they sit down to eat at one of her restaurants. She says that if someone leaves her restaurant inspired to try persimmons for example—a fruit they may not have known existed or is in season—or learns that Pennsylvania has great wines and chooses to buy a local wine instead of a foreign variety, then that's a win for her.
“Inherently it kind of makes us more connected, and if we’re more connected it means we’re more connected to our land. So if I know where my cheese came from, you know where your cheese came from,” she says. “If you scouted all over and you went to the farmers market and you bought it and you picked it out and this little nice lady made it, you’re probably not going to put it in your trash.”
While Olexy has grown her restaurant empire into an established Philadelphia entity, her mission of using homegrown ingredients and making her restaurants feel like a "sanctuary" draws back to her childhood in rural Chester County, approximately an hour outside of Philadelphia.
Because of the farmland that Olexy grew up around, she recounts that produce flourishing at different times was an iconic symbol of the changing seasons, time passing, and the daily meals on her family’s kitchen table. Summer was marked by peaches in August; fall was welcomed by the apples in September and pumpkins in October. While her family members weren't farmers, they were gardeners. Eating her mother’s canned tomatoes, zucchini relish, and banana bread, all from leftover homegrown ingredients, was a regular occurrence for Olexy.
Her sustainable approach to her restaurants today “was kind of the fabric of my life—not in a highfalutin way, that was kind of the par for the course where I was raised,” Olexy says.
Olexy worked in restaurants throughout her life, beginning in high school where she worked at the Spring Mill Café in Chester County. Owned by a close friend of hers from France, this is where Olexy first “got the bug” for becoming a restaurant entrepreneur herself.
After having served as a General Manager of multiple Starr restaurants—Blue Angel, Tangerine, and Pod—Olexy emerged into the Philadelphia food scene in 2001, this time as the co–owner of Django, a BYOB restaurant in Society Hill where she put her farm–to–table upbringing to practice.
“We gathered food from the farmers market, we cooked it, we served it that night based on how many reservations we had, and we did it over and over every day,” Olexy says. “It really was the hallmark of farm–to–table cooking in the moment. We had a limited menu, but we did all kinds of stuff, and everything we did we made it there ... It was really people’s second home. It was amazing.”
After six or seven years, pregnant at the time, Olexy says she decided to sell the restaurant and move back to Chester County to raise her daughter. Nevertheless, shortly after her daughter, Annalee Talula Rae, was born, she once again got “the bug” to start another business. She called up her longtime friend, Starr, and the two went on the hunt for Olexy’s new venture. Inspired by her love of family and its newest member, she subsequently opened Talula’s Table in 2007.
Olexy describes it as more than a restaurant serving “twenty to thirty dollar entrees”; it was also founded to be a cafe, a prepared food outlet, a cheese shop, and a lunch place that showcased her love of “all things food.”
Years passed and, with her daughter being older, Olexy wanted to expand and also get back into the city. Thus she opened Talula’s Garden in 2011 and the adjacent cafe, Talula’s Daily, in 2013.
Having lived and worked near Washington Square for many years, Olexy knew the area well, and she knew this vacant art deco building facing the park had space for an attached garden—it was the perfect home for Talula’s Garden.
“I wanted to emulate my mission in the space,” Olexy says. “Because in Philadelphia, you know, a lot of the outdoor seating you’re sitting on a sidewalk, but what’s cool there is you’re sitting at a hideaway secret garden.”
Olexy didn’t look at other locations and got right to work. She made the decor “simple and fluid,” with wooden tables, antique collected plates, and water glasses made out of old wine bottles that were smoothed and finished, ornamenting the candlelit tables perfectly. “I try to use things that are a little less commercial and more household, you know, things that you would see in a nice home,” she says.
Her attention to detail, ambiance, locality, and facilitating connections are all key parts of Olexy’s day–to–day mission. Every night she wants to treat her guests to a wonderful dinner party. Each element—from how they're greeted at the door, seated at their table, told of allergens, and are helped with their food selection—is a key ingredient to making them feel at home in her restaurant.
Two years after the successful opening of Talula’s Garden, the addition of Talula’s Daily next door was Olexy’s way of showing Philadelphia her “commitment to all things food, not just like dinner service at a posh restaurant.”
Olexy notes that the trimmings of well–butchered steaks from one restaurant on one night can be ground into burgers for the cafe on the next. Her mission with the cafe is to provide better food choices to patrons that are also sustainable.
Because of the Daily’s freeform menu, which is reprinted on paper each day according to the freshness and seasonality of ingredients, Olexy has created “a forum to use things” and really carry out her farm–to–table mission in a way most restaurants are unable to.
Even after the massive success of the series of "Talula’s" restaurants, Olexy wasn’t finished making her impact on Philadelphia. In 2017, she and Starr collaborated once again to open The Love, one of Rittenhouse Square’s hottest restaurants. While many thought her choice of name, The Love, was “risky,” Olexy stood by it resolutely.
“I wanted to pepper the city with another one that says, ‘here’s another place that really cares about what they do,'” Olexy says. “I was like, ‘What would be a good compliment to Talula’s?’ And I was like, ‘You know, I want to do something on the other side of the city, and the spirit of The Love is do something that cares about the environment and cares about the mission of good food choices and local seasonal eating—and I want to do it smack in the center of the shopping district.'”
Olexy has taken her mission of farm–to–table and good food choices to The Love, and its soaring reviews and sought–after reservations speak highly of its success. Her aim was to be both creative yet simplistic, casual yet elegant. Everything from the warm chive butter and homemade rolls to the booths intended to emulate the comfort of a home sofa, adds to the homeyness she wants her customers to feel.
"They’re crazy businesses, big operations," she says. "The heart of it is taking care of people. It's like a little family. Like right now. It’s little pieces of the puzzle, and if you’re good at it, you can handle them all.”