Buddakan’s double digits

On Buddakan’s 10th anniversary, we look back on the hyperactive career of restaurateur Stephen Starr and examine how he has changed the way Philadelphians eat.

On any given weekend, Buddakan serves more than 500 people in a single evening. It’s also one of Philadelphia’s toughest restaurants to reserve seating. No wonder it’s the envy of its fine dining contenders.

Buddakan recently celebrated its 10th anniversary – for an entire week. To commemorate its illustrious career, the restaurant served popular dishes and donated $15,000 of its proceeds to Project H.O.M.E, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that provides second chances to the homeless.

Buddakan is owner Stephen Starr’s second restaurant. His first was the Continental. Buddakan’s sleek, mystic motif has a much bolder design than Continental’s diner-esque interior. It’s as if Starr’s confidence skyrocketed as soon as Continental received praise from the community.

Starr has yet to find fault with his formula. In a sense, Buddakan, like Starr’s other eateries, is a sophisticated clone that was manufactured from the same formula that has made all of his establishments successful. The only difference is that it’s in swankier threads.

“You’re getting great food with great service and a great experience,” said Josh Levine, general manager of Buddakan. Levine has worked in the ranks of Starr’s empire for five years.

Since he began, Levine said that he has learned a great deal from Starr’s example.

“Starr taught me how to look at the detail of things. [At Buddakan], no nook or cranny is overlooked,” he said. “I think the design factor is something Stephen does really well.”

Starr’s priority for conceptually sound interior design is as evident as the 10-foot Buddha statue that overlooks Buddakan’s main dining area. With celebrity photos on the backs of chairs, long white curtains draped along the walls and the sonorous blare of acid-jazz, Buddakan transcends Philly’s restaurant scene. It would be more fitting among the epicurean elites of New York City.

Buddakan’s birth was a godsend to Philly. It guided the city out of the dark ages of the mid-1990s, when Philadelphia’s restaurant life was static.

In a live online chat session on Sept. 9, Starr said during the 1990s, he thought Philadelphia’s restaurant scene was uninteresting and old hat – that it needed a gadfly.

“In the beginning, I did not pay as much attention to weighing the trendiness versus the ability to last,” Starr said. “I first became infatuated with space, [and] since there was virtually nothing [in Philadelphia at the time], concept development was easy.”

In the ‘90s, Starr pioneered a new type of food: “glorified pedestrian fare.” Now, gastropubs and restaurants throughout the city serve it (Rachel Playe/TTN).

To date, Starr owns 12 restaurants in various eclectic breeds. There is a Buddakan in both Atlantic City, N.J. and New York City, which are tailored to each area’s tastes.

Speaking of taste, Buddakan wouldn’t be a Starr restaurant without its signature cuisine.

“[Buddakan’s food] is consistent,” Levine said. “It tastes the same way it did 10 years ago, and it will continue to taste that way.”

From calamari salad to chicken dumplings and aged beef, Buddakan’s Asian-fusion cuisine highlights comfort food while satisfying a myriad of palates.

“The food at Buddakan is approachable,” Levine said. “We use the freshest ingredients, and people keep coming back.”

Before the gastropub craze hit Philadelphia, Starr popularized a brand of food that some describe as “glorified pedestrian fare.” Now, Starr’s menus balance humbled gourmet and sophisticated cuisine.
Starr’s keen foresight to revamp Philly’s fine dining standards forced the community to re-evaluate its own restaurant standards.

After all these years, the city is still clamoring for more Starr. Philadelphians no longer want white tablecloths and waiters who look like penguins. In fact, restaurants that still cling to the old-fashioned dining formula are considered dead meat in the industry.

Le Bec-Fin, one of the last antiquated fine dining establishments left in Philly’s restaurant scene, recently reconstructed its prized prix fixe menu and lowered prices. Old Original Bookbinder’s, yet another crumbling patriarch, has also seen better days.

Starr has weathered the unexpected change in public opinion, with Buddakan still at the top of Philly dining.

“[Buddakan] is the cream of the crop,” Levine said. “I think Buddakan has, and always will have, a special place in Stephen’s heart.”

Aaron Stella can be reached at aaron.stella@temple.edu.

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