“Do you want to have your name back?”
It’s a question Audrey Claire Taichman likely never thought she’d be asked when, 25 years ago, she rehabbed a run-down corner store with a small business loan, perched a bucket of sunflowers on the open window walls, and helped launch Philly’s modern BYOB scene with her eponymous corner bistro, Audrey Claire.
The trendsetting minimalist look and supernova energy of that 45-seat dining room with exposed air ducts and a tiny open kitchen was enduring. Its white T-shirt-clad staff served some of the first tables ever to be perched outside on a Center City sidewalk. And the neo-Med menu from then-upstart chef Marcie Turney, with its pomegranate chicken, feta-crusted lamb chops and grilled Caesar salad, captured an affordable but stylish sensibility that became a magnet for crowds that hovered perpetually around the corner at 20th and Spruce Streets. For decades.
It’s a testament to Taichman’s vision that crowds still dine at Audrey Claire, even though she’d moved to Baltimore with her husband and sold the business to friend Rob Wasserman three years ago. Even though its familiar menu had slipped into autopilot many years prior, long overtaken by a food scene that continued to mature beyond where this Rittenhouse neighborhood standby really needed to consider going.
I give Wasserman a lot credit for finally shaking things up, for recognizing the pandemic’s interruption as an opportunity to make a change. He’s also managed to evolve this bistro with the astute recognition that it didn’t need to change too much, as much as be updated.
The name was the most obvious move. Taichman, who still owns the wine shop Cork across the street and plans to move back to Philly soon, has been pursuing other ventures, and recovering the use of her name would be beneficial for future branding. So Wasserman made this corner his own by naming the space after his 6-year-old daughter, Charley Dove, using her middle name (”Dove”) as a wink to Taichman’s choice of “Claire” so many years before.
The more subtle evolutions have been with the staff and menu. Wasserman simply wanted to update and refresh Taichman’s winning formula, unlike his more drastic concept revamp of Taichman’s other former restaurant across the street, Twenty Manning, which is being reimagined as a Middle Eastern street food bar.
Wasserman enlisted the help of two industry vets as managing partners. Nancy Benussi, a longtime member of the Vetri group, plus stints with Royal Boucherie and Dmitri’s in Fitler Square, has brought a sense of local institutional memory to this corner and a warmth to the service that was not always present.
Chef John Taus, 38, has been tasked with refining the menu’s approach to Mediterranean flavors. The chef’s early career experiences at Zahav, plus later work at Snackbar, Wm. Mulherin’s, Il Pittore, and a corporate job with Sofitel that sent him from Chicago to Berkeley, Barbados, and Mexico, has given him the chops to produce approachable, evocative plates that frame good ingredients with creative style.
He’s added some easy flourishes to increase the feeling of value and hospitality like an amuse-bouche, a complimentary welcome nibble that ranged from a warm falafel ball over whipped tahina at our first visit to a goat cheese truffle rolled in za’atar spice. Simple, but classy!
And Taus has managed to reimagine some other standards in fresh ways. How many times have I seen the well-worn combo of beets and goat cheese, yawned, and taken a pass? You won’t want to do that here. Taus stuffs a whole beet with goat cheese then roasts it to a charred crisp, the smoky crunch of its burnt and caramelized exterior conjuring new depths of earthy sweetness.
The hearty hummus topped with roasted sunchokes, candied lemon and za’atar just got silkier now that the kitchen has acquired a special Blixer blade to boost the blender’s emulsifying power. Florets of cauliflower are deep fried before they’re pickled, then served warm over herbed labneh with crushed walnuts and pomegranate seeds.
Sheer rounds of shaved lemon add a lively spark of bitter citrus to chickpea soup that hints at a Moroccan harira in a fuzzy focus sort of way. But that suits this kitchen, as Taus’ food is intended more as a breezy wave to the Mediterranean rather than a diligent tribute to any traditions. That’s similar to Audrey Claire’s approach, but comes off as a notch more refined.
The freedom to riff loosely on the theme has produced some gems. Tender curls of baby octopus come glazed in a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce of honeyed harissa over a crunchy pad of saffron rice that’s been panfried to a crisp, a nod to paella’s soccarat or Persian tadiq, but with that sauce and octo, adding up to something original.
I’d say the stuffed eggplant was a loose take on the Turkish classic imam bayildi, but this version, stuffed with a tomato sauce and stewed prunes, then topped with feta, was a satisfying vegetarian entrée with a distinct flavor profile.
Taus draws inspiration from his travels in other clever ways. The famed whole fish striped with two different colored salsas at Contremar in Mexico City is Levanticized at Charley Dove, with cuminy harissa spiced with Aleppo pepper blushing deep red across one side of the butterflied whole fish, a peppery green zhoug spicing the other half with a white racing stripe of dilled yogurt tzatziki running down the spine. Audrey Claire (along with Dmitri’s) helped popularize grilled whole fish locally decades ago with different, simpler preparations, but there’s a lot of different flavors vying for attention here. This colorful beauty works, easily ranking among my top current picks in my Philly Branzino Power Rankings.
Charley Dove has other worthy seafood options, like the juicy hunk of grilled swordfish posed over late-season corn beneath an emerald schmear of pistachio pesto — and it’s delicious, even if it’s heavy on the nuts for a sauce called salmoriglio.
Some of the best dishes, though, are meat-centric, like the peppers stuffed with house merguez and goat cheese broiled with tomato sauce in a cast iron skillet, with fresh house pita on the side for dipping. Or the grilled lamb steak with an ash-darkened baba ghanoush (I had a tasty earlier version sliced from a roasted leg).
I especially loved the soulfully braised veal short ribs, which simmer in chunky tomato sauce with white wine and golden raisins before it’s finished with the sweet-and-sour tang of vinegared honey and candied lemon peels. Even the old Audrey Claire roast chicken gets a thoughtful revamp, a beautifully moist half bird glazed in dark jus steeped with sweet dried apricots over bulgur wheat. It’s a fresh sweet-’n-sour nod to the old pomegranate molasses-glazed standby, but executed with more finesse and depth of flavor.
Dessert remains a work in progress, as the brownie-like brick of chocolate ganache was too hard. The rice pudding was more inspired, as it came topped with a roasted peach scented with arak, pomegranate seeds, and the puffy crunch of fried wild rice.
One key aspect that’s already been improved is the deafening noise level of the little dining room, whose ceiling and walls have now been upholstered with so many acoustic cushions, it almost looks like eating inside a sofa. Then again, the magic of Audrey Claire was always fueled by the al fresco energy of its pioneering sidewalk seating. And that has been improved, as well, with the addition of an expansive pandemic-era patio streetery, hung with vines in the style of Wasserman’s Rouge. Charley Dove’s outdoor seats are generously spaced, fostering a vibe that feels more relaxed than before, like a place that is comfortably at ease with its mission as a neighborhood hang.
If you squint over that final pot of French press, you’ll still see plenty of details, menu ideas, and even old customers that may remind you of good old Audrey Claire. But that name is not the only thing that has been changed. Charley Dove feels like a more mature version of this iconic corner restaurant, grateful for its legacy, but ready to evolve and embrace the subtle nuances of its new identity.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
276 S. 20th St., 215-731-1222; charleydovephilly.com
Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m.
All major cards accepted.
Reservations recommended. Proof of vaccination required for inside dining.
Street parking only.