“When foodies hear ‘tough reservation,’ they generally think French Laundry in Napa or Le Cirque in New York — both known for their six-month waiting lists. That’s a snap compared with a spot at Talula’s Table.”— NPR
Back when we lived in Philly, I kept seeing news items and breathless reports about Talula’s Table, the gourmet market in Kennet Square, a historic borough about 40 miles southwest of the city, that closed every evening to transform into a cozy spot that served dinner to one group at the lone table in the center of the market.
I dreamed of sitting at that mythical Farm Table, surrounded by close friends, door locked, the only people able to eat there that night.
Its reputation certainly preceded it.
It was featured in The New York Times Magazine in 2008 and Conde Nast Traveler in 2014. It has been called the “impossible reservation” and the “toughest reservation in the U.S.” NBC News called it the “toughest table in America,” remarking:
“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 long-leaf pine table each night.”
It has attracted “chefs, writers, tycoons, musicians, mushroom farmers, plastic surgeons, and actors,” one of which, John Turturro, praised it as “the kind of a meal you’d request before your execution.”
The market first opened in 2007 and by December the Soup Nazi-esque reservation policy was put into effect – and immediately entered Philadelphia lore: “Each morning at 7 a.m., [co-own Aimee Olexy] would answer the phone and take a single reservation for the entire table — for exactly one year from the current date.”
However, when Olexy and others wanted to invite guests for dinner, where would they sit?
Enter the Chef’s Table: “[G]uests at the Chef’s Table are seated in Talula’s kitchen and can see their meal being created right before their eyes, making this a one-of-a-kind dining experience and the perfect treat for a birthday, anniversary and other special occasion. The Chef’s Table is reserved up to three months in advance…”
Unlike the Farm Table, which seats ten to twelve, the Chef’s Table (later renamed the Nook Table) was a bit smaller – seating four to eight – and was nestled in the kitchen. Until 2015 it was invite-only and even after it continued to be used to offer an invitation to special visitors or prior Farm Table guests they wanted to welcome back for another meal.
Long before COVID changed the restaurant industry and our relationship to it, I had the opportunity to dine at Talula’s Table twice, once at the Farm Table, once at the Chef’s Table.
The reservation system is not the only thing that makes it different from a typical restaurant. Everything about Talula’s is unique.
You don’t simply show up and eat. This is an event.
In the fall of 2013, I was tooling around online when I decided to take a gander to the Talula’s Table page and see what was up. Across the top of the screen, a banner bar informed visitors that snagging a reservation could only be done via phone first thing in the morning – not in-person, not online – but that every so often a cancelation does open up a slot.
Intriguing, but I was not particularly hopeful. How many times do people cancel a reservation after waiting an entire year?
I visited the site a few more times over the ensuing weeks and nothing seemed to ever change. Then, on a whim, I visited and saw something new: it was in the vein of a weather system alert and it announced that there had been a cancelation and there was an opening the following week.
I wanted to pounce on it, but I wasn’t sure I could fill a table of ten to twelve people for a $140 each (“cash strongly preferred”) dinner on a Wednesday night, particularly at that point in our lives when most of us had small children and new mortgages.
Fortune favors the bold, I thought. So I sent an email to the restaurant and then sent a second email to a group of friends I thought would want to indulge with me.
The lovely people at the restaurant responded the next morning and confirmed that, yes, there was an opening. Would I like to fill the void? I would love to, I said, provided I could get the minimum number of people.
Several emails flew back and forth and I was able to snag six others that were in. We just needed two more – or the eight of us would have to cover the remaining $280 (you can have as few people as you like, but you’ll be charged for ten). Fortunately, one friend suggested that his sister and her future husband would love to join the festivities. Done.
A few weeks before the reservation, we were given the menu as well as suggested wines to pair with them so we could go shopping for the perfect drink to complement our meal. We were all set to see what the toughest reservation in America had to offer.
October 16, 2013
It’s a strange feeling to walk into a restaurant for dinner just as the place closes. One of the coolest aspects of Talula’s Table is that the centerpiece of the market during the day is where dinner occurs at night. As a result, our evening couldn’t begin until all customers had left.
As we arrived that Wednesday evening, we were told that our table would be ready soon and were treated to some complimentary spirits while we waited and chatted. After a few minutes, we were led to the table in the direct center of the market.
While we were getting situated at the Farm Table, the other party dining that evening was led past our table and into the kitchen to their spot at the Chef’s Table.
The menus were at our places and if you’ve ever been to an even remotely fancy restaurant you know that each dish comes with a Wikipedia biography. This was like that, except that it was done in a much more informative way rather than a snobby or arrogant way – or maybe I just felt that way because I was so excited.
Each course that came out was, as expected, beautifully presented but tiny. Previously, when we had dined at critically-acclaimed, top flight restaurants, we often left the meal feeling famished and needed to stop for Wendy’s on the way home. As the food was presented at Tulala’s, I was fairly certain the same would happen again.
I was happily incorrect. The portions were indeed small, but they were not only delicious but also balanced one another perfectly, and the number of courses – eight – made up for the abundance of space on each plate. If given the option, I probably would not have chosen most, if not all, of the dishes, but they were all scrumptious.
The food was wonderful, the conversation great, the ambiance amazing. At the end of the night, after paying our bill (in cash) and leaving a generous gratuity, we were extended an invitation to return again — this time at the Chef’s Table and without having to fight for a reservation.
We moved the following summer and our lives only became busier, but I kept the invitation in mind.
After a couple of years, I decided to recommit to returning to Talula’s Table. If I didn’t make the effort, no one else would either — and I really wanted to go back. I emailed the restaurant and, timidly, mentioned that we had been invited to return…three years earlier.
The response from Talula’s came very quickly. We were still very much invited and I was given a number of dates that they would be happy to have us (none were on Friday or Saturday so my fantasy of a weekend in my beloved city were dashed).
I got the band back together. Since the Chef’s Table was a bit smaller than the Farm Table, so my original group of eight would suffice (it eventually wound up being seven).
We chose a Sunday in late August. It would be the perfect cap to that summer and a nice outing before my wife began another year of teaching. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I would be starting a new (ultimately terrible) job the next day, not a great idea considering we had a 230 mile roundtrip drive to Kennet Square and back, but losing a little sleep would certainly be worth it.
August 28, 2016
A lot of the unknown mystique was gone on the second visit, but it was replaced by an assured excitement. This time, I knew I was in for a great evening rather than simply hoping for one. Plus, it would be a completely different experience this time around.
There was still a glimpse of the sun – those late summer nights seem to last the longest – and I appreciated that we were returning at a slightly different time of year, presumably with some lighter fare.
As we had the first time, we relaxed at the front, catching up and laughing. This time, however, we were ones that were led through the store and entered the kitchen, where a table was set in the corner. It was in the midst of the action but at the same time off to the side as to not be intrusive to the staff.
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t as enamored with the food the second time. It wasn’t that it was bad or prepared incorrectly, but rather that I would never love some of the menu items, no matter how perfectly they were made.
But we weren’t there only for the food. We were there for the full adventure and, as before, Talula’s Table was once again a fantastic experience. My friends and I had the only table in the kitchen of a premier restaurant for the entirety of the night! If it had been captured in a movie, there would have a been a slow motion montage of us laughing, drinking, and eating as the camera moved around the table and sentimental music played.
It was a wonderful evening, one that felt like the young, carefree days before kids and mortgages, and before we moved away. I was genuinely sad for it end.
I have not sat down to have a meal in a restaurant in sixteen months and I’m sure I’ll return at some point. If I don’t, I’ll always remember the uniqueness and joy of snagging the toughest reservation in America.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.