Stephen Starr, the restaurateur, creates cool spots. It’s what he’s always done. Sure, the steaks at Barclay Prime—one of his many Philadelphia restaurants—are luscious and top quality. But Stephen’s innovation is the makeover he gives to the classic steakhouse. Stuffy and clubby make way for almost insufferably hip. The tall walls are lined with books, the furniture is mod and sleek, dance music is playing.
At the ripe old age of 21, Stephen opened Grand Mom Minnie's. It was an old diner in Old City, Philadelphia, with lots of personality. Grand Mom Minnie's served food during the day and comedy at night. Next was Stars, a cabaret-restaurant-comedy club hybrid. Stephen had a knack for booking acts that would later become big names: Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David Richard Belzer and Pat Benatar got started at Stars.
“There were nightclubs, and at nightclubs there was always food and drink,” Stephen says. But he was foremost an entertainment and concert promoter—a big deal concert promoter. He organized the first Madonna tour. He promoted U2 and the Eurythmics.
There’s a pattern in Stephen’s career: more, more, more. He’s always dreaming up and opening new ideas, new places. He’s not content to sit still.
Next came the Ripley Music Hall, a big venue which showcased Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen before they were big deals. He started The Concert Company, his medium for bringing stadium acts, like Lionel Richie and George Michael, to his hometown, Philly.
In 1993, “everything changed when I sold my company to my competitor, Electric Factory Concerts.” Stephen had “nothing to do,” and was feeling restless. A non-compete clause him kept him from venturing back into the business he knew.
Stephen fell in love with a 1960’s diner on 2nd and Market in Old City. It was kitchy and funky, and made him think—this would be a “groovy bar.” He had money from the sale of his company, so he bought the place. And he kept going. He created The Bank, a dance club. Then he opened Café Republic on South Street. The theme was Russia—caviar and vodka abound.
In 1994 “nobody drank martinis. A martini was something your grandparents drank. I had never had one.” But his friends on the west coast were talking about the classic cocktail, and the idea excited him. There was a bar called Global 33 on New York’s Lower East Side doing great cocktails. Stephen hired the bartender to consult and the designer Miguel Calvo to create a maddeningly cool space. Thus, Continental was born. It was Philadelphia’s first martini bar and an instant “giant hit.”
Stephen’s restaurants all have a clear focus—almost restaurant as theme park. In the 1990’s, there was “nothing Asain and fun. Everything was very fancy and very serious.” Then came Buddakan, first in Philadelphia and then in New York and Atlantic City. Frank Bruni wrote in his new York Times review, “Buddakan is the apotheosis, at least for the next 60 seconds, of a distinct genre: the post-millennial urban mess hall as supersize cocktail lounge with superstylized dishes… a restaurant as flashy as any this city has seen.”
Stephen trusts his instincts. He makes restaurants where he wants to go, places where he would be happy to spend his night. “If it doesn’t exist, I’ll make it.” When he needs inspiration, he travels. Right now, he’d really like to visit Greece.
Then there was, and will be more Starr restaurants: Nuevo Latino cuisine, a pizzeria, a sprawling brasserie in Rittenhouse Square, a burger stand.
For Stephen, the fun is in “creating a restaurant and concept, giving birth. Running them day to day is less fun.” It’s a volatile endeavor. “It’s not like making sweaters. At every second something can go wrong…there’s too much salt, it’s too cold, it’s too hot.”
“I love it and I hate it, every moment is a struggle.” Yet Stephen is proud to see people enjoy themselves, to make their night. It makes him feel good. “It’s like a performance. You make people like you. And at the end, they clap.” There might be skeptics and critics, but night after night, Stephen gets a standing ovation.