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Born To Be A Starr

There may be no hotter restaurant operator in the country than Stephen Starr



It’s a typical day in the offices of Stephen Starr. Anita Ekberg has run off crying and Marcello Mastroianni has just been gut-punched by an angry, hung-over husband. And that’s just part of the commotion in his office on this sunny spring day in Philadelphia. There are 10 would-be servers outside his door hoping to get the thumbs up, but they must wait, one by one, for Starr’s phone to stop ringing.

Starr’s phone rarely stops ringing. When it does, he’s also got to make time for two t-shirt-and-jean-wearing restaurant designers slouched on his couch. Starr has given his French bistro–Blue Angel–the hook, and will be jamming with this laid-back dyad for ideas on how to fill the now-vacant space with an Italian concept, circa 1960s.

Welcome to a day in the life of Stephen Starr, Philadelphia’s most prolific restaurant operator. With seven successful restaurant concepts under his belt and more on the drawing board, Starr has single-handedly changed the culinary landscape of this city. His restaurants are often over-the-top, mind-blowing concepts that tap into a current or decades-old Zeitgeist. They are dramatically ethnic, sometimes nostalgically American, but always astonishingly hip.

Hip was a word often used by critics in 1999 when Star opened Blue Angel, his rendition of an authentic French bistro. Philadelphia Magazine named it "Best New Restaurant" in 2000, and a host of other critics concurred. But Starr closed it earlier this year "because the time was right." He admits the backlash against the French response to the American war in Iraq hurt the restaurant (sales fell by 18%). But "hurt" is a relative term. L’Ange Bleu is no more, he says, because its
annual take ran out of steam at $2.9 million.

So here’s Starr in his office as the dogwoods burst forth blossoms of pink and white flowers, dreaming up yet another restaurant concept, one that will post sales of $3.5 million or more. He and the designers–Owen and Jun–are attempting to watch, for inspirational purposes, Federico Fellini’s classic 1960 film –La Dolce Vita–on a V.C.R.-television hookup in his office. For some reason, one Starr can’t explain, the Italian pop and swank of the 1960s has captured his imagination, and he’s betting it will do the same for the legions who follow him from one concept to the next. On screen, Anita Ekberg sizzles, and a young Marcello Mastroianni oozes an Italian cool that Starr hopes to translate into a restaurant that will seduce the beautiful people who lust for the sweet life.

This is Starr’s modus operandi: A maddening whisper of an idea enters his head and, like a possessed musician, he jams with as many people as he can
until a full-blown concept wails.

The leader of Starr Restaurant Organization (SRO) first began to make music with Continental Restaurant and Martini Bar, which appeared on the Philadelphia scene in 1995 when the latest martini craze was just beginning to percolate in New York and L.A. The Continental, which sits below his offices in a restored 1960s stainless steel diner, made it cool to drink
martinis again or, in Starr’s case, for the first time.

In Continental’s wake came a trio of Asian restaurants–Buddakan, Pod and Morimoto–none of them like anything you’ve ever seen before. That, as you’ll find, is Starr’s métier: The ability to take something ordinary and morph it into something so extraordinary that you’re dared not to stand in line for a look and a taste. His concepts always have a hook, something that has an irresistible attraction. Buddakan features a 10-foot Buddha that you’d swear is 30 feet tall. Morimoto is home to the Iron Chef–Masaharu Morimoto–the star of the Food Network’s kitschy Japanese-produced cooking show. Pod is a tripped-out sushi bar where Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey collides with Woody Allen’s Sleeper.

On a more laid-back, romantic note, Starr created Tangerine, a sexy nod to Morocco and the Mediterranean. By day, splashes of exotic colors saturate the place; by night, the lights are moody and low; the pheromone level high.

Of course, Starr has a Latin pony in his stable. Alma de Cuba is his second big-name-chef partnership; this time with the

father of nuevo Latino cuisine, Douglas Rodriguez. Think pre-Castro Havana.

Starr’s most recent restaurant is Jones, his homage to the comfort food of decades past. Imagine eating macaroni and cheese and Duncan Hines Chocolate Layer Cake (with milk, of course) in the living room of the Brady Bunch.

Six of his restaurants opened within 30 months of each other. That, by any independent restaurant standard, is a blinding pace. Michael Palermo, his director of development, says Starr accomplishes so much so fast because he’s relentless.

"I mean that in a good way. The guy won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The (undulating) walls at Morimoto would never have been done if Stephen accepted all the ‘no’s’ from the contractors," he says. "His other talent is the ability to put people together and sift and funnel through all the discussion to reach an end. He’s involved in every detail of the business."

Palermo’s not exaggerating. In Starr’s outer office are a bunch of fresh-faced kids waiting for a two-minute interview that will determine if they’ll get jobs as servers. The boss of this multi-million-dollar empire insists on interviewing every waiter and bartender who applies for a job at his restaurants. And that’s after they’ve already been given the green light by a g.m. It’s enough to make management seminars across the land grind to a halt.

"Hey, they miss certain things," Starr says later about his g.m.s. "One of my managers wanted a particular waiter because she had worked in a great New York City restaurant. But within 30 seconds, I found out she was in a motorcycle gang and killed her boyfriend."

Geeze, Stephen, it was self-defense!

"I’ve never known a restaurateur who cares more about his employees than he does," says Douglas Rodriguez, his chef/partner at Alma de Cuba and the chef/owner of Ola in New York City. "Stephen hired 20 people at Alma when it opened two years ago and 18 of them are still there. His people love him. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met."

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Something about the ’60s has a hold on Starr. At age 47, he was too young to bite into the forbidden fruits of America’s turbulent decade, and he has regrets,

regrets he never went to Woodstock, that he never saw Jim Morrison live. His office, which has all the charm of the Texas School Book Depository, is adorned with ’60s iconography. On one wall there’s a picture of the Lizard King, on another is Muhammed Ali hovering over a vanquished Sonny Liston. Perched on a shelf is an Elvis Doll (still in its box) and a framed picture of the Beatles, which shares equal billing with pictures of his daughters, Sarah, 12, and Sophie, 3. And then there are the gold and silver records, several of them, framed next to the shelf. All give hint to his former life.

Early on, Starr dreamed of being a disc jockey or fronting a band like the Beatles. He didn’t have the chops to be a musician, but even as a teenager, he could attract a crowd. At age 16, this son of a

television repairman had his own radio show and later landed a talk show on a prominent radio station in Philly. His mother had died earlier, but he was finding his way through the world just fine.

From radio, he went on to open a number of enter tainment venues in the city, including a restaurant/comedy club, a cabaret/restaurant called Starr’s (where young Jerry Seinfeld and Pat Benatar appeared) and a disco ("I hated disco, but it paid the bills."). He later opened a larger venue–Ripley Music Hall–which featured acts such as U2, Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen, and he filled stadiums with Madonna, George Michael and others.

When he talks of those days, his laid-back cool retreats and a boyish enthusiasm perks to a near smile. Starr rarely smiles, and when he does, it’s like getting a hundred bucks from your notoriously cheap uncle. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, there’s little doubt Starr would chose to come back as a rock idol, not a restaurateur.

In this life, Stephen Starr is a restaurateur disguised as a rock star. The money he made after his concert company was bought out helped fuel his "serious" restaurant career. It’s no surprise that his break-through restaurant–Buddakan–is named after the famous Japanese concert hall.

Today, his uniform of choice is casual slacks and a black t-shirt, but the slacks are Versace and the shirt, Prada. His tan comes by way of St. Barts. Everything about him suggests that Philadelphia is not big enough to contain him. In fact, he’ll soon, in the words of Jim Morrison, break on through to the other side. The Continental Restaurant & Martini Bar is one

vehicle that will possibly take him to secondary markets such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Morimoto is another, but one headed for big cities such as New York, Chicago, L.A. and Miami. Plans are currently in the works for a New York Morimoto next year.

The Iron Chef once held the executive chef spot at Nobu–New York City’s celebrity-fueled shrine to sushi–before Starr lured him away. Taking Morimoto back to New York appears, at least on the surface, to be setting the stage for an in-your-face, iron balls confrontation. Not so, says Starr. "There’s room for both in New York."

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For now, Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg and La Dolce Vita have been put on a shelf because Starr wants to take a look at a grand space that has opened in a historic building in nearby Washington Square. Yet Starr, like an obsessed paparazzo, can’t quite get the primordial Italian concept out of his head as we jump in Owen’s shaggy 1988 baby blue Crown Victoria for the trek over.

"I was at the Love Shack in New York City and they were showing Italian erotica on a plasma screen," says Starr, slipping on his dark shades. "There was something cool about it . . . I’m not sure what, but maybe we can do something similar over the bar?"

Starr strives for the pulse, the feel of a concept, while his insouciant designers attempt to convert his thoughts into materials and textures. "We should consider dropping the ceiling in some areas to break the view," says Jun. They talk about plexiglass walls, terrazzo flooring and a hundred other changes that will be so drastic, customers will be transported from France to Italy. "We need a couple of finishes that will create a lot of bang for the buck," Starr says, with an eye on a budget. "Maybe stone or some groovy paneling." He can get away with using a word like "groovy."

We arrive at the building and a security guard unlocks the ornate door to the vacant Art Deco space. In its most recent

incarnation, the space served as a psychiatrist’s office, but could easily have been home to a lush, high-end bank. Starr walks in and quickly imagines its future, one that will bring comfort to an insane world. "I envision this as a cross between the Monkey Bar and The Stork Club," he says, scanning the long, sophisticated space. Yeah, you could see Walter Winchell and Marilyn Monroe cavorting here.

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It’s night time, and Starr’s behind the wheel of his black Mercedes. With him, riding shotgun, is Richard Roberts, the g.m. of The Continental. Starr’s restaurants are interesting by day, but must be seen at night. We head to Pod, one of two Starr restaurants designed by the legendary David Rockwell. Located on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, Pod is crazy cool, and there should be some law in the universe that says no college kid deserves to puke in a place like this. But on this night, the law is

violated, and Starr is annoyed. Some frat rat should be put on double secret probation.

Beyond the dozens of kids doing shooters at the bar

is the sleek, whitewashed wonder that is Pod. Rockwell has used molded rubber, sculpted plastic, resin finishes and high-gloss epoxy to create an ultra-modern, all-white design that is bathed in bold, colorful lights. His interactive design allows diners to select nine different colored lights that illumi-

nate pod-style booths. Nearby is a circular bar where sushi comes alive on a conveyor belt as video clips of Speed Racer are projected on a 60-inch screen. You ain’t in Pennsylvania any more, Dorothy!

Rockwell says his collaborations with Starr–he also designed the slinky and seductive Cuba de Alma–are invigorating because Star is wildly passionate about his restaurants.

"I’m not interested in doing easy projects. I want to innovate, and Stephen is so committed to doing the same," says Rockwell. "He’s as obsessive and as incredibly restless as I am. We also share a strong

interest in popular culture. He makes me want to work with him."

Starr has snaked his way back to the kitchen to talk with the chef while Continental’s g.m., Richard Roberts, shares thoughts similar to those of Rockwell about his boss.

"Stephen is extremely ambitious and driven, but he rarely stops long enough to enjoy his success," he says. "But what you see from Stephen is what you get. There’s nothing clandestine about him, and I like that."

The frenetic energy of Pod is incredibly intense, and there’s not an empty seat in the house. "Let’s go," says Starr, heading to the door. Back in his Mercedes, we head to Tangerine. "I don’t get that whole fraternity thing," he says, glaring back at a Greek god who has stumbled out of Pod, muttering nonsense.

Starr parks in front of Tangerine, where you can see a throng of customers through a tinted window. "I hate that window," he says. "There didn’t used to be one–just a sign–but people in Philadelphia are so literal. I liked that you didn’t know what was going on inside; you had to take a chance and go in."

Starr has left nothing to chance in Tangerine. It’s certainly one of his sexiest and most grown-up restaurants. The lounge up front was recently extended, and on this night, the young and beautiful crowd are comfortably tangled on couches and pillows in what appears to be a state of culinary foreplay.

Tangerine is a huge space with multiple rooms that are united by a decor that evokes a low-lit Moroccan-Middle Eastern mood. Starr says the place did experience a slight drop in sales following the 9/11 attacks, but rebounded quickly. Nevertheless, to counter such prejudice, Middle Eastern references tied to Tangerine have been downplayed in favor of the word "Mediterranean." It’s a shame, he says, "but that’s the crazy world we live in."

Now seated, Starr orders several dishes, all of which are served family-style. Many of his restaurants

employ family-style service because he feels it’s easier to pull off and customers love it. "When a dish is ready to go, it doesn’t have to wait," he says. "Out to the table it goes." The menu, by the way, features only one authentic Moroccan dish.

Starr has a strong connection to his customers, and a good feel for what they like. They like, for the most part, what he likes.

"I’m not into fancy things any more," he explains. "I don’t want to get all dressed up and spend $300 on a meal and wine. I yearn for simple and comfortable, and I think my customers do, too."

It’s been a long day, and Starr is tired. He begins to talk about the old days when he connected with the masses on the radio, spun discs and filled stadiums. "I almost threw Madonna out of a dressing room because she wasn’t known at the time and I didn’t recognize her," he reminisces.

Those days are long gone, and the Material Girl may now be the most recognizable woman on the planet. But Starr’s no slouch, either. In Philadelphia, he’s king, and the city is far better off because of his decision to spin restaurants and not records. But, like Madonna, he’s a major act who has gotten too big for small halls. Keep an eye out for Stephen Starr. He’s coming to a city near you.