Chasing Talula’s Table

What do Craig Laban, NPR, Conde Nast, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the actor John Turturro have in common?

They’ve all contributed to the mountain of accolades that presently makes it impossible to reserve the farmhouse table at Talula’s Table for anything inside of a year to the calendar date – and that’s if you’re extraordinarily lucky with your dialing finger.

When Talula’s Table first opened, it was a known fact that, at some point after getting things up and running, Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora were going to begin offering private dining affairs after-hours, hosted at the large farmhouse table in the center of the shop.  Limiting the number of available slots to the number of seats at the farmhouse table allowed Sikora and the kitchen staff to concentrate on serving a multi-course meal to a smaller number of guests, a welcome departure from the maddening pace of a Center City restaurant kitchen.

That’s exactly what happened.  Shortly after opening, around March of 2007 or so, Talula’s Table opened its reservations book for parties of 10 to 12, one per evening, at a prix fixe of $85 per person.  This was right around the same time that we stopped into the shop to pick up some cheese, and as Aimee was helping us with our selection, we started talking about the dinners.  We waxed nostalgic about our times at Django, and how sooner or later we’d have to book a reservation to try the farmhouse table dinner, once we found eight more people who would be willing to come out with us.

Aimee told us that, if we were interested, there were still some slots available for the second half of the year.  Everything up until June was already booked.  Hm.  We politely declined, figuring we’d have some time later to make firm plans.

We were slightly mistaken.  As we wiled away our leisure time during the summer, word of mouth began to spread like wildfire, of this tiny shop in this little town in Pennsylvania serving these outstanding eight course, three hour feasts.

As of September 1, the table was booked for every available night until July 31, 2008.

Then, on October 14, Craig Laban, the restaurant critic from the Philadelphia Inquirer, published his review of Talula’s Table.  Mr. Laban, who grants the equivalent of a “good to great” rating (two bells, for you locals) to the majority of establishments that appear in his column (which is already enough of an endorsement to boost traffic considerably) stated that Talula’s Table was “one of the best meals I’ve eaten all year”.  Then, John Turturro said, of the Valentine’s Day dinner that he enjoyed with his wife, that “it was the kind of meal you’d request before your execution”.

Aw, crap.

On January 2, 2008, when the restaurant reopened after the holiday break, it opened its reservations book for the rest of 2008.  This was at 7am.  By 9am, a 2008 reservation was out of the question.

Today, Talula’s Table takes reservations exactly one year to the calendar date in advance, giving the farmhouse table to the caller lucky enough to get through first at 7am, 365 days before the first course is to be served.  By way of comparison, the French Laundry in Napa, which has a mere 17 tables, requires two months to the calendar date.  The only similar situation to Talula’s Table is El Bulli, in Spain, which is widely considered as the best restaurant in the world, which takes reservations in mid-October for the following year, and usually books up completely on the first day.

It was bad enough when Talula’s Table was garnering only local accolades in Pennsylvania and neighboring states on the eastern seaboard.  But when Conde Nast’s (“The Toughest Table in America”, March 19, 2008), the New York Times (“Spiritual Retreat”, May 11, 2008), the Los Angeles Times, and National Public Radio (“Talula’s: The Toughest Reservation in the US?”, April 22, 2008) chimed in with their own praise, the improbability of getting a reservation became a near impossibility.

We were frustrated, not only because we had failed to answer the door when opportunity knocked, but also because now, with all of the national attention, what was going to be a nice upcoming anniversary or birthday dinner was turning into an uphill battle against overwhelming odds.  With such a slim probability of scoring a reservation, we were resigned to never having the opportunity to experience Talula’s Table outside of its existence as a gourmet shop.

Come back here for Part 3, this Friday.