Executive chef Justin Swain, 25, who grew up in Mayfair, was valedictorian for his graduating class at the Philadelphia Restaurant School at Walnut Hill.

by Len Lear

It is not unusual, of course, for a professional athlete to have to take time off because of an injury, and every so often a replacement player is so effective that the injured player loses his starting job permanently. The most famous example of this was Wally Pipp, the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees who asked manager Miller Huggins to take him out of the lineup on June 2, 1925, allegedly because of a pounding headache. (Years later Pipp claimed he had a concussion from a batting practice pitch.)

Huggins allegedly said to him, “Wally, take the day off. We’ll try that kid Gehrig (who was 22 at the time) at first today and get you back in there tomorrow.” Pipp was not exactly a turkey. In 16 big-league seasons the tall (6-foot-2), handsome Pipp, who started for the Yankees for 10 straight years until the headache incident, collected 1,941 hits, 997 RBIs and a lifetime batting average of .281, but as die-hard baseball fans know, Pipp never played another game with the Yankees. (He was sold to the Cincinnati Reds in 1926.)

That’s because his replacement (supposedly for one day) was Lou Gehrig, who went on to set a Major League record by playing in 2130 consecutive games over 14 years and becoming one of the best players in baseball history, with an astonishing lifetime BA of .340, 493 home runs and 1992 RBIs until he was cut down by the then-unknown disease that now bears his name.

I was reminded of the legendary Pipp/Gehrig story last December after learning that Rex 1516, Philadelphia’s newest Southern-inspired restaurant west of Broad Street which had been getting rave reviews from both critics and bloggers, was losing its executive chef, Regis Jansen. A spokesman for the restaurant that opened in March, 2011, said the very heavily tattooed native of Mobile, Alabama, “has been in an ongoing battle with cystic fibrosis and is leaving his post to focus solely on getting well.”

Jansen’s replacement, Justin Swain, 25, who grew up in Mayfair and attended the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, was also valedictorian for his graduating class at the Philadelphia Restaurant School at Walnut Hill. He was a line cook for Jansen at another restaurant prior to Rex 1516. (The “Rex” was a tribute to Regis Jansen, and the 1516 comes from their address, 1516 South St.) “My grandfather would always take me out to restaurants,” said Justin, “and I just fell in love with the business.”

Swain just may wind up being the culinary equivalent of Lou Gehrig. He is as organized as the rungs of a ladder. He has the kind of skill you would like to pull out of your pocket like a key that opens all locks, a balm to soothe anxiety.


Chef Swain’s shrimp and grits is probably the most popular dish at brunch on Saturday and Sunday’s, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Photo by Doug Keith)

An escargots appetizer with whiskey butter, for example, gave a hearty nod to rustic comfort ($10). A Cobb salad will not send you into raptures, but the fine-tuned, well balanced mix of fresh arugula, tasso ham, hard-boiled duck egg and more, cloaked with a sensuous house-made blue cheese dressing, demonstrated the kitchen’s meticulous attention to detail ($10).

Smoked short ribs with a house-made barbecue sauce were so tender they practically carved themselves. The essence of slow-cooked soul, they were accompanied by potato gratin and marinated cucumber and onion ($22). And the needlepoint-precise preparation of a pan-fried grouper with a judicious blackened red pepper sauce elicited a low moan of pleasure ($22).

For dessert, a chocolate pecan tart with bourbon caramel makes for a combination that is pure sunshine ($7). And with any dessert, ask — or beg, if necessary — for a candied mint to accompany it. It is otherworldly. (Swain also makes all the desserts.) And our server, David Begler, was delightful.


Getting great reviews is Rex 1516’s corn meal waffle with orange-infused maple syrup, orange zest, fresh fruit and fruit compote. (Photo by Doug Keith)

Rex 1516 is a small, intimate converted rowhouse with exposed brick on one wall, antique mirrors, attractive framed prints on the opposite wall, a ceiling with paper that looks like tin, distressed woodwork and three huge chandeliers that look like wrought iron but are actually bent wood. There is also a charming bar with a custom marble top that was previously at a church on the Penn campus and wood panels reclaimed from the Rittenhouse Club. Over the bar TV, old movies are always playing with the sound down. The one we saw starred Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum.

“If I was a single man or a gay woman, I’d definitely be here,” said Kylie Flett, a native of Australia who is now a publicity rep for Rex 1516. “They always have mostly women here and at the bar. It is skewed towards a female demographic.”

Interestingly, co-owner Jill Weber is an archaeologist with special expertise in Syria (there may be nothing left to explore there now except for rubble), and her husband, co-owner Evan Malone, is an inventor. The couple also own a wine bar called Jet across the street from the restaurant.

Rex 1516 recently introduced a bar menu that’s dished up daily during happy hour, 5-7 p.m., to complement their beer line up. The bar menu includes several Southern dishes at $5 each such as ham and cheddar croquettes with charred tomato sauce; fried oyster sliders with corn meal, fried oysters, bacon, pickles and creole mustard; fried okra with bacon aioli, et al. The wines we tried by the glass were pedestrian.

We thought parking would be a hassle, but there were actually a few open spaces on the 1600 block of South Street, one block from the restaurant. More information at 267-319-1366 or rex1516.com.