These days, Philadelphia’s favorite restaurateur is hard to find and even harder to speak to. Starr’s recent projects in New York City and Atlantic City have made his time all the more valuable and so limited that when The Temple News tried to arrange an interview with Starr, his personal assistant even admitted she’s had trouble reaching the Temple alumnus.
But that’s OK, because no matter where he is or where you are, you can still take a bite of Starr at one of his 12 restaurants clustered within a 2-mile radius in Philadelphia. From homestyle all-American eats to far east Asian delicacies with an edge, there’s a little bit of Starr for everyone’s tastes. His intuitive knowledge of what people want now inspired “trend dining,” a concept that has made his enterprise a force representative of Philly’s on-the-rise dining culture.
Starr, 52, studied radio, TV and film at Temple, graduating from the School of Communications and Theater in 1977 with a degree in communications and a hustler-turned-suave professional drive to succeed.
In high school, Starr learned the art of salesmanship by selling cheap watches and trinkets on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Now, the man who has admitted in previous interviews to knowing very little about food, sells his restaurants by theme, experience and their attractiveness to all five senses.
After college Starr pursued event promotion to pay the bills. As his reputation grew, so did his entrepreneur drive. He founded the Concert Company and outbid other venues for acts like Madonna, Lionel Ritchie and Guns N’ Roses. While he lacked the power of big-name Electric Factory, Starr’s street-savvy selling style frightened the Factory enough to buy him out in 1991.
Starr got so good at bringing big acts to Philly that he decided to try his skills out on his own venues. Before entrance into the restaurant business he owned and ran nightclubs, opening Ripley’s, a live music venue at Sixth and South streets and the Bank, a dance club at Sixth and Spring Garden streets.
Starr’s experience in the entertainment industry is reflected in his restaurants. For Starr, food is only the side dish to what really matters: the restaurant atmosphere.
After receiving a fat paycheck from the Electric Factory to stop competing against them, the New Jersey born entertainment guru established a legacy in the restaurant business with one novel idea. His philosophy of “Experience Dining” began at Second and Market streets, where Starr opened the famed 1960s-era infused cocktail bar and restaurant the Continental in 1997.
Where a grungy dive diner had stood previously, Starr established the first component of what has become a $100 million and still growing empire today.
Arguably the backbone of the city’s dining for the trendy, Starr is trying to spread his empire by appealing to the young and fabulous beyond Old City and Center City streets. He’s set his sights high, opening the Asian cuisine favorites Buddakan and Morimoto in New York City just this spring. The Big Apple hasn’t been as welcoming to Starr, with a New York Times food critic slapping Morimoto with a one-star, lukewarm review after the restaurant opened in March.
Capitalizing on the development of the up-and-coming Atlantic City, Starr will open successors to Philly’s Buddakan and the Continental in the mini-Las Vegas’ soon-to-open entertainment destination, the Pier at Caesars this spring.
The “Stephen Starr Experience” has become as much a requirement for tourists as visiting Independence Hall or running the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Starr has branded the town, and whether you hate him or love him his name is here to stay.
Sammy Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.