Just how hungry are you?
At this restaurant, your table is not nearly ready.
At 7 a.m. Wednesday, the phone will start ringing at Talula's Table, a food shop and cafe in downtown Kennett Square.
The callers will seek dinner reservations for the single table - but even the first on the line will not be eating soon.
Talula's simple wooden "farm table," with its mismatched chairs, already is booked through July with groups of wine-toting foodies eager to sample ever-changing, eight-course meals prepared by Bryan Sikora.
It's easier to score dinner at the vaunted Vetri in Center City or the French Laundry in Napa Valley than it is to get a res at Talula's Table, which seats full parties only of eight to 12 people, five to seven nights a week. It's $85 a head, plus tax and tip.
This gustatory equivalent of finding a Nintendo Wii began almost from Talula's opening in March. Aimee Olexy, Sikora's wife and business partner, said waits had quickly stretched to two months. But a bell-ringer of a review from The Inquirer's Craig LaBan in mid-October ("one of the best meals I've eaten all year") filled Talula's into next summer, she said.
Olexy decided to cut off reservations at July 31, 2008.
This Wednesday, the couple's first day back after New Year's, Olexy will accept reservations from Aug. 1, 2008, through Jan. 2, 2009. Thereafter, a rolling system, one year out, will begin. Chatter on food-related Web sites suggests that interest in reservations is high.
"It's harder than getting a table in the O.R. at Hahnemann if you're waiting for a liver transplant," said Franz Lidz, a writer who lives in nearby Landenberg.
"And the liver here is fantastic," he added.
Thursday night, as Lidz became Talula's first four-time guest, he mused that he might begin reselling reservations on eBay to pay for the college education of his daughter Daisy, a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence.
Some Talula's hangers-on - Lidz dubs himself a "barnacle" - wander into the kitchen while Sikora is cooking and end up eating - out of sight of the reserved parties - at a prep table.
Olexy said the couple was thinking of opening that kitchen experience to the public, as well.
Nick Jenny, a scuba instructor from Unionville, said he liked the ability to dine in the "small, quaint" atmosphere and praised the "innovative, imaginative cuisine that not even Per Se and Michael Mina are doing." Jenny said he had enjoyed his first meal so much that he and friends had six reservations scattered in the first half of 2008.
The market opens at 7 a.m. with coffee, baked goods, artisan cheeses and gourmet foods, some of which can be eaten at the table. As the store closes at 7 p.m., dinner guests arrive, the front lights dim, and dinner begins. They usually finish by 11.
David Eagle, an engineering manager for a division of Rohm & Haas, said he and his fiancee, Wiebke Heinrich, had booked a pre-wedding dinner Friday because of Talula's exclusivity. "We have a large contingent from Europe, mainly Germans, and my family is coming up from Virginia," said Eagle, who made his reservation in September. "We all wanted to sit together and have a gourmet tasting."
Among dishes on the current menu, which ended yesterday, were buttery leek and wine-poached Chatham cod, petite pommes frites, and American caviar. Olexy steers customers to David McDuff at the Moore Bros. wine shop in Wilmington for wine recommendations.
Olexy and Sikora, both in their mid-30s, gained wide attention at their first restaurant, Django, a BYOB in Queen Village, which they opened in 2001 and sold in 2005. Settling for a quieter life and business near Olexy's hometown of West Chester, they named the store after their daughter, Annalee Talula Rae Sikora, now 21/2.
The popularity of the farm table has exceeded expectations.
Part of the Talula's experience is the mystique of feeling like an insider, somehow able to crack the code - yet without the trappings of belonging to a private club.
Chef Vola's, a seemingly modest Italian restaurant in the cellar of a former Atlantic City rooming house, thwarted interlopers for years by not posting a sign out front and keeping its phone number unlisted; even after the number leaked out, the restaurant remains booked for months at least on weekends, co-owner Michael Esposito said.
The distinction of "toughest table" in Philadelphia for the last decade has been held by Vetri.
It's an issue of supply (only 35 seats at 11 tables) and demand (Vetri is frequently listed as one of the top Italian restaurants in the United States). "I'd call at least two months out," said Sean McCarthy, a concierge at the Rittenhouse Hotel.
Among local concierges, who book tables for clients, the consensus is that the second-toughest is Amada, the lively Spanish tapas restau-lounge in Old City, with waits of four to six weeks for prime time. Ken Alan, vice president of concierge services for BPG Properties L.L.C., said Amada and its smaller sibling near Rittenhouse Square, Tinto, had supplanted Buddakan, the high-energy pan-Asian palace in Old City, in difficulty. Even at 170 seats, plus a communal table, Buddakan is still considered a tough score on weekends.
"They're not in the realm of Talula's," Alan said. "After all, it's only one table."
How to Score a Hot Reservation
The reservationist may say a restaurant is "fully committed," but all hope may not be lost. Concierges, who seek the impossible for a living, offer these tips:
Prepare to dine early or late. Everyone in Philadelphia wants to sit down between 7 and 8:30 p.m. Try for 5:30 or 10 p.m.
Become a regular, or know one well.
Find the magic hour when reservationists call around to confirm. Sometimes, last-minute tables open up. Thursday in the early afternoon is a good ballpark for Saturday.
Show up at the restaurant's bar, order drinks and appetizers, and tell the hostess that you're interested in a table should one open. If you don't feel like waiting, just leave.
Obtain an American Express Platinum or Centurion (the so-called black) card. Amex supposedly blocks out a table at certain restaurants for cardholders. Of course, when that table is gone, it's gone.
- Michael Klein