Cornbread is part of the conversation at Rex at the Royal.

It’s the first thing you’ll taste when you settle into one of the cushy teal booths that anchor this dramatic new dining room on South Street where the historic Royal Theater once stood. It beckons warm from inside the folds of purple linen, a scoop of honeyed butter at the ready. And when I cracked one open, its earthy steam mingling with the anise kiss of a Sazerac in my other hand, I was fully primed for a Southern journey.

There would be creamy crocks of she-crab soup, juicy pork chops over zesty collards, more great cocktails, and a (gluten-free!) banana pudding cheesecake to follow. But first, those corn muffins...

I appreciated the balance of sweetness and fluff in its crumb, as well as its deep rustic corn savor. But cornbread expectations are different depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you happen to be eating. And this particular recipe has followed its own telling journey of modifications in the first few months of Rex at the Royal, opened in October by Jill Weber and Evan Malone of Sojourn Philly, who also own Sor Ynez, Cafe Ynez and Jet Wine Bar.

Rex chef Aaron Paik, who previously worked at the Sanctuary Hotel in Kiawah Island, S.C., initially made it with pure Jimmy Red, a revived heirloom grain from Edisto Island, S.C., cultivated by Marsh Hen Mills that speaks to the Lowcountry traditions Rex at the Royal evokes. But that early version was dry and less sweet, a profile true to regional preference, says Paik.

That these muffins have since been modified with some yellow corn and more sugar to sweeten them into something Philadelphians might be more accustomed to is simply part of the conversation at the heart of this project. Who gets to carry forth the legacy of Southern food as it evolves?

Weber, also an archaeologist, wanted to create a tribute to the Southern Black chefs who moved to Philadelphia a century ago during the Great Migration and adapted their foodways (including many from the Lowcountry coasts of South Carolina and Georgia) to the Mid-Atlantic. Still, Rex at the Royal does not aim solely to be a Southern restaurant, and the food should reflect its regional transformations.

It’s a fascinating concept and compelling that it would come to life on the site of the historically significant Royal Theater. Opened in 1920 as a first-run cinema operated for and by Black Americans, the Royal became a cultural hub that later hosted live performances from Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller. The theater unfortunately languished vacant for nearly half a century between when it closed in 1970 and when it was ultimately demolished in 2017 to make way for the apartments and houses built behind the new restaurant.

To see the lights finally blink on and the eager crowds flow into this beauty behind the Royal’s preserved facade after several years of construction should be cause for celebration on this stretch of South Street in Graduate Hospital.

Weber and Malone, who previously operated the much smaller Rex 1516 just a few doors east, have stepped up their game with this massive new 250-seat space, whose chandelier-hung ceiling, walnut-paneled walls, and mezzanine lounge accessed by a sweeping staircase exude a rare special-occasion grandeur. A retail bottle shop and cafe on the side, with imminent plans for all-day service (breakfast biscuits, sparkling wines by the glass with raw bar oyster), adds a more accessible, casual dynamic to the operation.

There’s genuine hospitality from the diverse staff led by general manager Brian Jackson. And despite its size, this space designed by Philadelphia’s Gabrielle Canno still exudes personality and warmth, from the cozy circular booths that ring the main dining room to the long amazonite bar that energizes the space near the entrance, where crowds linger over well-made cocktails that range from classic Remy-spiked Sidecars to a festively rummy Hurricane.

There’s a list of worthwhile wines by the glass with a natural bent one might expect from Weber (try the Kivelstadt KC Labs Zinfandel). But there’s also a repertoire of original cocktails from lead bartender Joshua Scheid and director of operations Nick Baitzel created with food in mind, like the carrot tequila brew called Por Dio, whose turmeric spice echoes the vegetarian accra fritter burger made from mashed black-eyed peas, or the vivid orange leche de tigre that brightens the daily crudo scattered with benne seeds and tangy chowchow.

All those elements have contributed to meals I’ve enjoyed on the whole as a dining experience. But whether Rex at the Royal has the culinary vision to really achieve its lofty historical tribute mission is an open question. Weber and Malone fell into running a Southern-themed menu at the original Rex because their opening chef was from Alabama. And though Rex cultivated a number of specialties I appreciated — a flaky crawfish pot pie that remains on this menu, for example — I valued the original more as a destination for upscale burgers and cocktails than a haven of studious Southern cooking.

With a more deliberate focus here on Lowcountry influences and their Philadelphia connections, Weber and corporate culinary director Lucio Palazzo turned to former Geechee Girl Rice Cafe chef Valerie Erwin for consulting help. Erwin provided an early menu with standards like Hoppin’ John (done well here) and has since added recent tweaks like the curried Country Captain take on seared scallops. But Erwin had no interest, at 69, in running such a large restaurant. And her efforts to help them in their search for a younger Black Philly chef never quite landed the right fit.

A wider national search connected them with Paik, 33, a Brooklyn native of Afro-Dominican and Sicilian heritage whose experiences in the Florida Keys, as well as in Charleston, have added some welcome layers of lightness to Rex’s repertoire — especially that sunny crudo.

What does crudo have to do with Black chefs in Philadelphia a century ago? Not much. Neither is there any connection to the oyster stews, terrapin croquettes, and deviled crab detailed by Boothby’s chef Harry Franklyn Hall in his 1901 cookbook, 300 Ways to Cook and Serve Shellfish, which Weber has noted as an influence.

Rex at the Royal is now still polishing its Southern basics. And many of the appetizers trend on the heavy side, with a trio of fried starters that all feel in need of tweaks, from a tempura batter for the okra that was not especially crisp to fried green tomatoes that were shingled simply over a smudge of pimento cheese and seemed dry without a sauce. After a rich crock of she-crab soup, I was ready for a nap before we even got to the entrees.

That would have been a shame, because the shrimp and grits is outstanding. The pork chop was one of the most memorable I’ve had in months, tender and juicy over collards laced with smoked turkey ringed by a creamy grain mustard sauce.

I understand why people rave about the unconventional chicken and dumplings. The nicely grilled breast and smoked thigh are striking over the dark jus that pools around orange sweet potato gnocchi. It was certainly tasty. But I didn’t consider this cheffy deconstruction to be more satisfying than a well-executed version of the humble one-pot classic made with good ingredients. The bountiful Frogmore seafood stew would have been more my speed — had the kitchen not forgotten to add the fish of the day to the flavorful broth filled with shellfish and andouille.

Speaking of classics, Rex’s hefty ($22!) burger was also a surprise letdown. It towered over a brioche bun with its signature pimento cheese, crispy onions, and bacon. It was even perfectly medium-rare. But it had also rested so long before being served it arrived oddly juiceless.

These are the kind of small-but-impactful errors that can so easily be fixed, as long the conversation keeps rolling. The desserts are already solid, including the “milk and cookies” favorite from Rex 1516 that presents beignet-like fritters of cookie dough with oozing chocolate centers beside a RumChata shake, which I slurped until I hit bottom.

And so I have few doubts: Rex at the Royal is already a bright addition, bringing a vibrant dose of dining life and good flavors to a significant South Street address. And yet, I also can’t help feeling there’s a much larger step for this ambitious project to grasp. One day, if it manages to find the culinary talent to clearly crystallize its mission to become a modern homage to the Black Southern cooks who worked in Philadelphia a century ago, it could truly become important.

Rex at the Royal

The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.

1524 South St., 267-319-1366; rexphl.com

Hours: Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Entrees, $19-$51.

Wheelchair accessible.

Street parking only.

Vaccine required.