Stephen Starr is one of the most successful restaurateurs in the history of the food industry, and one of Philly's most polarizing business icons. His success in Philadelphia is unparallelled, and his empire has spread to the cutthroat universe of NYC with great fanfare. Starr recently announced that he wasn't going to open anything else in Philadelphia in 2012, and he was focusing elsewhere for further expansion.
Eater sat down with Starr to discuss this controversial decision, talk about the state of food in Philly, and his thoughts on local food media and criticism. He also dropped a bomb that will make a lot of people very happy.
So, are you really not opening another restaurant in Philly in 2012?
Yes, well that was the plan. But, I'm going to re-open Blue Angel in it's old location at 7th and Chestnut with Aimee Olexy who is at Talula's Garden and was the original GM of Blue Angel. I've gutted the place of all the remnants of Angelina, and it looks like just like Blue Angel again.
This is great news. When you closed Blue Angel, a lot of Philadelphians were pissed, as it's probably your most beloved restaurant. Why did you close in the first place?
When Aimee (Olexy) left, it went downhill. Her soul was the soul of Blue Angel. Without her, it wilted. With her onboard, we can do this.
Why the dramatic decision to not expand locally in 2012? Was it business or personal?
Business, of course. First, I think we're getting a little bit oversaturated. Secondly, the local government is unfriendly to people in the food industry. You'd think with all of the vacant buildings around, they would facilitate a relationship to get people to move in to those places. I brought 3,000 jobs to Philadelphia with my restaurants, and I've been successful with my own money. Also, when the tip bill passed, it went through without any real discussion. There was a quick meeting, but not real way to have a conversation about it. I didn't think that was fair.
So, this is your form of protest against those decisions.
Why do you think you have so much success here in Philadelphia?
Because I'm here. I love buying spaces. I may not always know what the concept is going to be but finding the next great space is my drug. I love it. If I was in NYC or somewhere else, I would try to do the same thing there. Also, rent is ridiculous in NYC. You need to know you're going to be successful quickly or you won't survive. I am a small fish in a big pond up there.
So besides NYC, where else are you expanding?
While you've been quite successful, there have been a few notable failures on your resume. How do you know when it's time to pull the plug on a restaurant?
I used to be in the music business. You know in 15 minutes if something is going to be a failure.
Washington Square was your most visible failure. And you had Marcus Samuelsson on staff as chef. What happened?
Well, Marcus can cook. But, it only works if he's in the kitchen. It didn't work.
What about Angelina, which replaced Blue Angel?
The feng shui was off, the design was all wrong. Also, customers didn't get the concept. They wanted a red sauce place, which it wasn't.
Do you feel that Philly is a one horse town, with only Inquirer critic Craig LaBan having a say in the success of a restaurant, and only one magazine in Philly Mag? Is there too much power in one place?
I disagree. In NYC you have the New York Times and everyone else. And then there's New York Magazine. Here you have Craig and then Philly Mag. It's a lot alike.
How do you feel about the local media as a whole?
Well, I think it's fertile. There's a lot of strong voices and a lot of dialogue, which I love. But a lot of the established voices seem to go after achievers. Being in the restaurant business is like being in a beauty pageant 24 hours a day. If I gain two pounds, someone notices.
People think you get preferential treatment from Craig LaBan for reviews, do you agree?
Actually, I always felt the opposite. I don't always agree with his assessments of our restaurants.
Which reviews did you disagree with?
Frankford Hall. I think he didn't get the whole atmosphere of the place. He hated the food. But it wasn't just about the food.
The review of Talula's Garden was definitely talked about, and everyone thinks Craig was unfair to you there. Your thoughts?
I thought it was fair. I didn't disagree.
Do you know Craig LaBan, or what he looks like?
No comment on that, but I hear he is a strikingly attractive individual.
Is it true that you prepare or have a certain regimen for when a critic is in the house that you recognize? There's rumors of making two dishes of each course and sending out the better one.
I will say that when a critic is recognized, we are on high alert. But, I won't talk about what we do. We don't do the two plate thing, but I heard that discussion before.
So, what are your next big plans for Philly, when you do decide to open another place, besides Blue Angel?
Well, I've been obsessed with opening a red sauce Italian place. Not the high-end stuff, but the peasant food. There's a place in NYC called Sauce that I love. Like the soul of Villa Di Roma. I also want to open a noodle bar. But, it would have to be a lunch time thing, because alcohol and noodles don't work well together. So, those are the next two ideas I'm going after.