Rex 1516 is no more. Rex at the Royal is the new incarnation complete with a Southern-inspired menu and a Dixie Jazz bandstand.
To hear that a Southern-inspired menu from the team at South Street’s Rex 1516 would be part of the still-fresh redo of Philly’s legendary Royal Theater – now known as The Royal, a tony apartment complex with a restaurant on street level – was something thrilling. If the Royal Theater (1524-1534 South Street) had to be torn down after years of disarray, at least a richly opulent menu would be welcome in its place.
Historically opened in 1929 as (their words at the time, and never mine) “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House,” the grand, high ceiling, 1,200-seat theater became the home to African American arts and culture in this city with top tier names such as Fats Waller and Bessie Smith gracing its stage. It was a dream room, by all accounts one of Philadelphia’s most elegant stages and grandly appointed theaters. By the 1960s, the Royal Theater’s business began to slow, and was closed in 1970. When preparations for its razing were announced in the 90s, Kenny Gamble, one of the founders of Philadelphia International Records bought the Royal Theater with plans to renovate and renew the vigor of Philadelphia’s African American arts and entertainment. When that vision didn’t materialize, in 2016 developer Robert Roskamp took over the property preserving the façade of the theater while structuring new living and commercial space.
So then, Rex at The Royal (which officially opens Friday, Oct 22 for dining and cocktails) inhabits the grandeur of the past in its dark, chandelier lines dining room and its long marble bar-highlighted cocktail salon in the front, behind its windows. With the royal blue-painted dining space obscured from the street, the back room (with its staircase and room for a Dixie jazz band to play) comes across as something clandestine: a speakeasy, a place for a rendezvous rather than just a meal and a drink. That said, the cocktails were lovely to look at and heroically zesty (I had an orange-tinged concoction of tequila, turmeric and carrot) and the passed hors d’oeuvres (mini burgers and crab cakes, Jamaican beef patties, fried shishido peppers) were so tasty they made you yearn to take in the rest of the menu – which was the whole point of a great preview.
Speaking for Chef Valerie Erwin and Executive Chef Aaron Paik, Rex’s Culinary Director Lucio Palazzo (from the Sojourn Philly Restaurant Group) talked up moving from the casual cool of Rex 1516 into something richer without the weight (or cost) of fine dining. “The 1516 menu is rustic and homey, like well designed bar food… homestyle stuff,” says Palazzo, touting new items such as the upcoming menu’s fried green tomato (soaked in buttermilk, drenched in red cornmeal) over spreadable pimento
“Here at Rex at The Royal, we came into a space with a lot of historical and cultural significance and made sure that we elevated our menu. We thought about the history of the neighborhood, the food and the feel, which means you’re going to see a lot of fish, and a lot of Atlantic Coast influence. So, we’re elevated but approachable. A neighborhood anchor.”