Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr Open Their First Restaurant in 4 Years
When Aimee Olexy was thinking of names for her new restaurant—opened with business partner and the 2017 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Restaurateur, Stephen Starr—all signs pointed to The Love. Philadelphia, also known as the city of brotherly love, is home to Robert Indiana’s iconic Love statue. In French, Olexy’s first name translates to “beloved,” and she’s been known to remind staff to slow down, make the plates nice, and “give them the love.” And ultimately, she says, “What the world needs now is some love.”
Situated right off the city’s bustling Rittenhouse Square, The Love is a neighborhood restaurant serving American dishes that inspire a sense of nostalgia and echo the warmth of the snug space—handmade perogies paired with a disc of creamy panna cotta and a thick layer of American caviar, whole grain parker house rolls served in a hot cast-iron skillet with a little pot of chive butter and the Lovebird—buttermilk fried chicken with buttery grits and a zippy “comeback sauce.” Olexy’s goal for The Love, just as it has been for her three other restaurants, is to create a welcoming spot where people can relax, eat excellent food and spend a memorable evening. “I’ve always felt like you can do that at home, when you have a dinner party or a little potluck with friends, and everybody finally has a glass of wine, and they start to get a little buzz, and you put on cool music and that’s a great memory,” she says. “And I’ve always tried to figure out how to facilitate that feeling in the restaurants.”
A self-described worker bee who can be found humming around the dining room, greeting guests and opening bottles of wine, Olexy is a front-of-house maven with a knack for successfully sparking that sentiment, including at her gourmet food market-slash-intimate restaurant, Talula’s Table, in bucolic Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. (The farm table hosts 8 to 12 people nightly and is booked out a year in advance.) “I’ve always felt that if I made businesses that were really customer directed, and based on who the people are in the community, it would become whatever the guests want it to become,” she says. “I like to leave room in my businesses for that to happen.” The Table’s notable scone program, for example, was inspired by the recipe a staff member had been perfecting with her mom. At The Love, the whole Carolina trout—tender and smoky and served with a handful of sweet and spicy pecans—was added to the menu because of the chef’s fond childhood memories of fishing for trout and grilling his fresh catch. The Irish coffee on the Liquid Dessert menu earned its place after beverage director and sommelier Alexandra Cherniavsky divulged to the team that she gets tons of compliments whenever she makes the boozy after dinner drink for friends. (The trick is to never sweeten the cream, and whip it to be fluffy, but not stiff, she says.) And the Very Zen Ice Cream, made with genmaicha and sprinkled with brown rice crispies, stemmed from the pastry chef’s love of the macha and brown rice tea. A common thread in her restaurants, Olexy likes to add these meaningful elements and help bring out the best in her people’s ideas.
The restaurateur has also long been dedicated to using local and seasonal products in her businesses, and The Love expands on that ethos with its beverage program. “I always bitch about people who kick the tires on the farm to table in the community and in the nation right now,” says Olexy. “I said, 'I have to make sure, in my own commitment to that, to always broaden that scope.' You can’t really be committed to that seasonal, local, and relationship building, and then have a bunch of Bullitt on the menu.” To wit, the “$20 Manhattan” (priced at $19) is made with overproof whiskey from Pennsylvania distillery Dad’s Hat, the blend created especially for The Love with their locally-grown rye. Hometown brewery Victory made an exclusive beer called “Share the Love”, and the wine list includes a section deemed “our friends and neighbors” featuring bottles from Pennsylvania and New York. The latter is broken down into mini wine lists so as to be more approachable, and also includes sections entitled “big, bold reds for fall” and “wines to drink now, in this moment, in this place, with this food.” While they do offer wines by the glass, the bottle menu was built to inspire conversation and expand on the dinner party idea.
“About ten years ago, maybe twenty, in the restaurant business, it was a proud moment to say, 'We have twenty different wines by the glass,’ but the idea of a four-top all drinking a different glass of wine — that’s fine, but when you have a bottle of wine, you’re sharing something. You’re talking about it,” says Olexy.
On a cold Saturday evening, I sat down to dinner in a cozy corner table at The Love, sipped a glass of Grüner Veltliner from Lehigh Valley and shared a plate of pillowy gnudi with fried sage and toasted chestnuts in a rich truffle brown butter sauce with my husband. A neighbor, seated across the dining room, popped by our table to say hello, and just then, a Paul Simon song started to play. The dinner party feeling certainly landed, and now I just have to figure out how to replicate that same vibe at home.