Nothing Is Easy When You're Stephen Starr—But That's Exactly How He Likes It
"I've done a couple restaurants that were easy, and it bothered me that they were easy, " Stephen Starr says, seated at a table at his restaurant Buddakan in Manhattan. Starr is in the business of making blockbuster restaurants. His portfolio includes the acclaimed Le Coucou and The Clocktower in New York City and Serpico and Talula’s Garden in Philadelphia, each possessed of a singular, striking environment and intended to be “its own work of art or theater.” (For the record, Buddakan, a 15,000-square-foot spectacle with a dizzying stairwell descending into a glittering dining room, was not one of the “easy” ones.)
When it opened its doors in 2006, Buddakan blew everyone away with its grandeur, its ambience—“and the food being way better than anyone thought it was going to be,” Starr adds. It certainly exceeded the expectations of New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni. “A restaurant this sexy doesn’t need to be smart,” he wrote. “But its chef, Michael Schulson, breathes intelligence and creativity into it.” That intelligence and creativity start with Starr, who is known for sweating the small stuff, down to the precise level of crispiness on the edge of a buckwheat galette or the specific degree, in Fahrenheit, to which the dining room thermostat is set. (On this particular Monday afternoon, the restaurant magnate is interviewing applicants for front-of-house positions at La Mercerie, the café at the luxury home furnishings boutique Roman and Williams Guild).
In a tailored suit and black crew neck shirt, Starr commands a lot of space and, at the same time, disappears into it. This is as true of his physical presence as it is of his role as a restaurateur. How else would you explain why it took more than two decades and upward of 30 well-received, nationally acclaimed establishments in six cities before he received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur last year?
Perhaps if he’d taken the approach of someone like Danny Meyer and made himself the headliner for each of his restaurants, Starr would have received that recognition from his peers sooner. After all, Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group had only four restaurants, two cafés, and a single Shake Shack location in its portfolio when he won that award in 2005. But Starr has never sought the spotlight. He’d rather be the man behind the curtain, creating spaces that make you feel like a rock star—or like you might be dining among them.
Starr’s interest in showmanship dates back to his childhood in New Jersey. “Everything about human nature, I think I learned from being on the boardwalk in Atlantic City,” he says. “I learned to sell. I learned how to market, and I learned what makes people tick.” As a teenager, he wanted to be an announcer on Top 40 radio. He got his First Class Radiotelephone Operator License at 15; to record DJ audition tapes, he snuck into the local college radio station. At 16, he was hosting his own rock show for an hour a week. As an undergrad at Temple University in Philadelphia, he moved on to television, forming a production company with his film professor. They were pitching ideas to networks when Starr’s mother died. He was 19 and devastated. Then his girlfriend broke up with him. The only way to win her back, he decided, was “to make money and get famous.”
The win-her-back part of the plan didn’t pan out, but the rest did. At 21, Starr opened Grandmom Minnie’s, a stand-up comedy venue that served food during the day. A few years later, when he stumbled upon an empty building, he secured a $40,000 loan from a bank, borrowed money from friends, and, in 1977, launched Stars, a comedy club and cabaret. “I booked Richard Belzer and Jerry Seinfeld, [who] was an up-and-coming comedian,” Starr says. “I booked Pat Benatar before she was Pat Benatar.” His next venture was Ripley’s Music Hall, where he booked the Pat Benatars of the world when they were Pat Benatars. Eventually, he founded The Concert Company to stage shows for performers like Madonna in Philadelphia. (He sold the company in 1990.)
He made his first foray into restaurants when a friend suggested they open a 1950s-type burger joint together. Starr came up with the name: Shake, Burger and Roll. They set up shop in an old Roy Rogers in suburban Main Line. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Starr says. “We did hundreds of covers, and we couldn’t get the food out, and it was a disaster. It went out of business in nine months.” If it had worked, Starr says, he’d still be doing Shake, Burger and Rolls all over the place (maybe giving Meyer’s Shake Shack a run for its money.) Instead, he did The Continental, which changed everything for him—and for Philadelphia.
In 1995, Starr had taken over a little diner on Market Street and didn’t know what to do with it. After a trip to Los Angeles, where a martini craze had taken hold, he turned it into The Continental, a martini bar and restaurant. “I was fascinated by the trend because it was like beautiful girls and handsome guys drinking martinis,” Starr says. “It wasn’t that college drink-beer-and-pass-out thing.” The food was at first an afterthought. But the chef on board encouraged Starr to pay more attention to the menu, warning that when the trend had run its course, people would continue to come back to eat if the food was good. “I listened to him,” Starr says. “His name was Bradlee Bartram, who now runs my company.” (Bartram’s official title is executive vice president.) The following year the movie Swingers came out, and suddenly everyone, everywhere wanted a taste of its retro, martini-sipping lifestyle. The Continental had arrived at exactly the right time. Night after night, it swarmed with twentysomethings. A restaurateur—and Starr Restaurants—was born.
“My whole goal was to make Philadelphia sexy,” Starr says, laughing. “Like instead of a place where your parents would take you, which is exactly what all the restaurants were, I wanted to sort of sex it up a little bit and make people feel good.” For the next decade, he continued to build properties and develop an audience of restaurant-goers in Philadelphia—an investment in the city’s dining culture that paved the way for a future generation of chefs and restaurateurs.
Starr still resides and continues to sign leases (20 and counting) in Philadelphia. Starting in 2006, he opened spots in other cities: Atlantic City and New York City, then Miami; Washington, D.C.; Ft. Lauderdale; and Paris. What compels Starr to continue, to open each new restaurant? “A cinematic space,” he says. “It has an impact on me, making me want to do something there.”
“He thinks bigger picture,” says Aimee Olexy, owner of The Love, which she launched with Starr near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square in November. She’s known him since 1999, when he hired her as general manager at Blue Angel, his third restaurant (it closed in 2003). “He has so many gigantic, full, complete visions.”
Le Coucou is perhaps Starr’s most visionary restaurant yet. He opened it in 2016 with the intention that it would garner critical acclaim, which it did: Pete Wells gave it a three-star rave in The New York Times, the James Beard Foundation voted it Best New Restaurant, and F&W named it a Restaurant of the Year. It also, to Starr’s surprise, has been a financial success. Diners who sit in its luxuriously yawning brick-walled dining room feel enveloped in an effortless kind of romance; their faces are bright with candlelight as they behold the gleaming open kitchen that looks like something out of a film set and as they taste Daniel Rose’s refined iterations of French bistro cuisine.
Effortless, it was not. “We worked so hard on that and stressed on every single detail and the food. Daniel [Rose] and I took hours of disagreeing with each other about things to the point where it was exhausting for both of us, but it came out the right way,” Starr says. “I’m relentless. I wouldn’t let up.”
“Being Stephen Starr can’t possibly be easy,” Rose says, “but he has turned it into a vehicle for success.”
Unlike some in the business, Starr doesn’t lean on past hits: “With each restaurant I have to outdo what I did last time—there’s got to be something better about the new one than there was about the old one.” Even when creating a second location of a restaurant, as he did with Buddakan, he makes them distinct. “I always feel the necessity for everything to be different,” he says. “That is not a smart business move because when there is an exit, when people want to buy your company, they usually want one or two concepts that they can replicate across the world.”
Twenty-three years in, with 5,000 employees on the payroll, there’s an infrastructure in place to keep Starr Restaurants running smoothly and allow its head honcho to step away from the day-to-day mechanics. But he doesn’t seem wired for pulling back. Here he is, still interviewing potential servers for a property.
His vision, married to an unremitting attention to minutiae, has gotten him this far, but it requires a level of focus on detail bordering on monomania, not to mention a lot of micromanaging. It’s not a scalable means of execution. Starr thinks about it, sometimes—about why he can’t “just open something nice but plain and be left alone.” But of course he can’t. That would be too easy.