Stephen Starr Reflects on 20 Years of Buddakan, His Game-Changing Philadelphia Restaurant
"I wanted to make something that I could get in New York, or London, or Los Angeles. So I thought, let me try to build this thing in my own hometown.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my family regularly shuttled into the city for special occasions, dining at white tablecloth, red gravy Italian spots in South Philly, and ... nowhere else. If there was another kind of restaurant in Philadelphia back then, I didn’t know it existed. With a few exceptions (Georges Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin among them), Philly’s restaurant scene felt homogenous and stale. Then, starting in the mid '90s, a culinary renaissance was sparked, and Stephen Starr is often credited with lighting the match.
Today, the mega-restaurateur owns Starr Restaurants, with 38 properties in six markets, including a whopping 21 in his hometown, plus the James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurant of 2017, Le Coucou in New York City, and St. Anselm, a steakhouse slated to open next month in Washington, D.C. But it was one of his first, Buddakan, that changed the game for Philadelphia, and in many ways, for Starr himself. This Sunday, the city’s original Asian-fusion hot spot is celebrating twenty years as a Philadelphia icon.
In the January 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine, executive editor Ashley Primis considered the restaurateur’s impact on the city, writing: “Stephen Starr believed that Philadelphia was a place that could have nice things. And so he gave them to us.” His restaurants felt like gifts to the city—transforming the Old City neighborhood and producing more celebrated chefs (including restaurateur Michael Schulson, who runs Schulson Collective with restaurants in Philly, Florida, and Atlantic City)—though Starr doesn’t exactly see them as one. His early vision was a little simpler in scope.
“Back then, 20 years ago, Philadelphia was sort of barren in terms of restaurants, in terms of anything that was exciting, or high energy, and I felt like, 'Why don't we have places like that?'” he tells Food & Wine. “I lived here, and I wanted to make something that I could get in New York, or London, or Los Angeles. So I thought, let me try to build this thing in my own hometown.”
On the heels of his hit first restaurant, the Continental Restaurant & Martini Bar (the glossy, retro diner serving dishes like lobster mashed potatoes (that blew my 17-year-old mind) was a game-changer in its own right), Buddakan opened in August 1998. Planning for this one, Starr knew he wanted to do something big, he just didn’t know exactly what that would be.
“When I first started out, I was going to make it Cuban, and I was going to call it—I still have the plans—Babalu, that Ricky Ricardo song, from I Love Lucy,” he says. “But then I thought that was too corny, and it was another name, and I didn’t do that.” Instead he looked for holes in the market, and came up with Asian cuisine. “We had Susanna Foo, but that was a very high-end, waiters-in-tuxedos Chinese restaurant.”
The name Buddakan stemmed from Starr’s musical background. “I was a concert promoter,” he says. “I thought of Budokan, which is a concert hall in Japan. The first band I ever booked in a concert was Cheap Trick [at the Trenton War Memorial in New Jersey], and Cheap Trick’s big record was Live from Budokan.”
Armed with a serendipitous name and fresh-for-Philly concept, Starr built Buddakan with a grandiosity and sex appeal that just didn’t exist in the city at the time. Everything, from the menu—with dishes like the Edamame Ravioli and the wok-seared Angry Lobster—to the striking design with its massive golden Buddha and long communal table, conveyed this place was for more than eating dinner. This was a production.
“We created a completely sexy, drop-your-jaw experience when you first walked in,” says Starr. “It was perfect for the time, and it was the hottest restaurant in the city for many, many, many years.”
Designer Kate Rohrer, of Rohe Creative, worked at the Continental as a server and bartender while studying at Moore College of Art and Design in the early 2000s, and credits the diner’s design with inspiring her to pursue her current career as a restaurant designer. Rohrer can also remember the first time she stepped foot inside Buddakan.
“It's what design dreams are made of, and I was standing right there in the middle of it,” she recalls. “I hadn't done a damn thing, but I felt proud of it and our city. I let every detail soak in. Nothing, I mean nothing was left untouched. It has, and always will be, my restaurant design 'North Star.' It was a pivotal moment—that time and place in my life where I realized holy cow, this is how you do it. This is how you make a restaurant into a true destination experience."
And after more than two decades in the restaurant business, Starr says he still carries with him a lesson he learned from opening Buddakan.
“That was a restaurant that I put my heart and soul in, literally, my heart and soul,” he says. “I mean, every aspect of it. I think there have been some restaurants where I wasn't as immersed in it as that, and I’ve learned that the only way you achieve greatness is to put your heart and soul in a project. And I always look back at Buddakan as an example of that.”
This Sunday, Buddakan is hosting its 20th anniversary dinner, with ceremonial blessings from a monk, and a three-course, family-style menu featuring many of its iconic dishes. The price is $200 for parties of four, and $50 for each additional person.