Rex at the Royal in Philadelphia is a nod to the Great Migration but misses some Southern basics

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 plush teal cabins that anchor this spectacular new dining room on South Street where the historic Royal Theater once stood. It invites warmth from within folds of purple linen, a ball of honey butter close at hand. And when I opened one, its earthy vapor mingling with the aniseed kiss of a Sazerac in my other hand, I was fully prepared for a trip down South.

There would be creamy pots of crab soup, juicy pork chops over tangy cabbage, other great cocktails and banana pudding cheesecake (gluten-free!) to follow. But first, these corn muffins…

I enjoyed the balance of sweetness and fluffiness in its crumb, as well as its deep, rustic corn flavor. But cornbread expectations are different depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you’re eating. And this particular recipe has gone on its own telling course of tweaks during Rex’s first few months 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.

Chef Rex Aaron Paik, who previously worked at the sanctuary hotel in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, first made it with pure Jim Red, an ancient grain revived from Edisto Island, South Carolina, grown by Marsh hen mills which evokes the traditions of the Lowcountry that Rex at the Royal evokes. But that first version was dry and less sweet, a profile true to regional preferences, Paik says.

The fact that these muffins have since been modified with yellow corn and more sugar to sweeten them into something Philadelphians might be more used to is just part of the conversation at the heart of this project. Who can carry on the legacy of Southern cuisine as it evolves?

Weber, also an archaeologist, wanted to create a tribute to southern black chefs who moved to Philadelphia a century ago during the Great Migration and adapted their eating habits (including many from the Lowcountry coasts of South Carolina and Georgia ) in the mid-Atlantic. Yet Rex at the Royal doesn’t just aim to be a Southern restaurant, and the food should reflect its regional transformations.

It is a fascinating and compelling concept that it would come to life on the site of the historically significant Theater Royal. Opened in 1920 as a first-run cinema operated for and by black Americans, the Royal became a cultural center that later hosted live performances by Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. The theater unfortunately remained vacant for almost half a century between its closure in 1970 and its final closure. demolished in 2017 to make way for the apartments and houses built behind the new restaurant.

Seeing the lights finally flash and the eager crowds pouring into this beauty behind the preserved facade of the Royal after many years of construction should be cause for celebration on this stretch of South Street at Graduate Hospital.

Weber and Malone, who previously operated the much smaller Rex 1516 a few doors east, have stepped up their game with this massive new 250-seat space, including the chandelier drop ceiling, walnut-paneled walls, and marble lounge. mezzanine accessible by sweeping the staircase exudes a rare grandeur for a special occasion. A retail bottle shop and sidewalk cafe, with imminent plans for all-day service (breakfast cookies, sparkling wines by the glass with raw oysters), adds a more approachable and laid-back dynamic to the operation.

There is genuine hospitality from the diverse staff led by General Manager Brian Jackson. And despite its size, this space designed by Gabrielle Canno of Philadelphia 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 festive Rummy Hurricane.

There’s an interesting wine list by the glass with a natural bent that one might expect from Weber (try the Kivelstadt KC Labs Zinfandel). But there’s also a repertoire of quirky cocktails mixed by head bartenders Joshua Scheid and Nick Baitzel created with food in mind, like the carrot tequila brew called Por Dio, whose turmeric spice echoes the veggie burger made with accra fries made with mashed black-eyed peas, or the bright orange tiger leche that brightens up the daily crudo strewn with benne seeds and tangy chowchow.

All of these contributed to the meals which I enjoyed overall as a dining experience. But whether Rex at the Royal has the culinary vision to truly achieve its lofty mission of historic tribute is an open question. Weber and Malone got into running a Southern-themed menu at the original Rex because their opening chef was from Alabama. And while Rex cultivated a number of specialties that I enjoyed – a flaky crawfish pie that remains on this menu, for example – I enjoyed the original more as a destination for burgers and high-end cocktails. range as a haven for 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 help as consultant. Erwin provided an early menu with standards like Hoppin’ John (well done here) and has since added recent tweaks like curried country captain taking seared scallops. But Erwin had no interest, at 69, in running such a large restaurant. And his efforts to help them in their search for a young leader from Black Philly never quite found the right person.

A broader national search connected them to Paik, 33, a Brooklyn native of Afro-Dominican and Sicilian descent whose experiences in the Florida Keys, as well as Charleston, added some welcome layers of levity to Rex’s repertoire. – especially this sunny crudo.

What does crudo have to do with black chefs in Philadelphia a century ago? Not a lot. Nor is there any connection to the oyster stews, terrapin croquettes and devil crab detailed by Boothby’s chef Harry Franklyn Hall in his 1901 cookbook, 300 ways to cook and serve shellfish, which Weber noted as an influence.

Rex at the Royal is still polishing its Southern bases. And many of the starters tend to be heavy, with a trio of fried starters all in need of tweaking, from tempura batter for okra that wasn’t particularly crispy to fried green tomatoes that were coated just a dash of pepper. cheese and seemed dry with no sauce. After a rich pot of crab soup, I was ready for a siesta before I even got to the entrees.

It would have been a shame, as the shrimp and grits are outstanding. The pork chop was one of the most memorable I’ve had in months, tender and juicy over kale with smoked turkey surrounded by a creamy old fashioned mustard sauce.

I get why people rave about unconventional chicken and meatballs. The well-grilled brisket and smoked thigh are striking on the dark juices that accumulate around the orange sweet potato gnocchi. It was certainly tasty. But I didn’t consider this cheffy deconstruction to be any more satisfying than a well-executed version of the humble one-pot classic made with the right ingredients. Frogmore’s hearty seafood stew would have been more up my alley – if the kitchen hadn’t forgotten to add the catch of the day to the savory broth filled with shellfish and andouille sausage.

Speaking of classics, Rex’s beefy burger ($22!) was also a surprise disappointment. It topped a brioche bun with its signature chili cheese, crispy onions and bacon. It was even perfectly medium-rare. But it had also rested so long before being served that it arrived strangely without juice.

These are the kind of small but impactful mistakes that can be corrected so easily, as long as the conversation continues. The desserts are already solid, including Rex 1516’s favorite “milk and cookies” which features donut-like cookie dough donuts with oozing chocolate centers next to a RumChata shake, which I drank until until I hit rock bottom.

And so I have few doubts: Rex at the Royal is already a brilliant addition, bringing a vibrant dose of culinary life and great flavors to a prominent South Street address. And yet, I can’t help but think that there is a much bigger step to take for this ambitious project. One day, if he can find the culinary talent to clearly crystallize his mission to become a modern homage to the southern black cooks who worked in Philadelphia a century ago, he could really come into his own.

The Inquirer does not currently give bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.

1524 South Street, 267-319-1366;

Opening hours: Dinner from Sunday to Thursday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.; Sunday Brunch, 11am-3pm

Appetizers, $19 to $51.

Wheelchair accessible.

Street parking only.

Compulsory vaccine.

Joshua B. Speller