Empire of the Rising Starr

With two Manhattan restaurants opening and annual sales approaching $100 million, Stephen Starr is reluctantly adjusting to running a 13-restaurant profit machine. In the cocktails-and-calamari mogul’s own words: “I hate that corporate s**t”

But ask Starr about the numbers, about break-even points and cash flow and cannibalization, about the ethos he tries to instill in his managers and where he’ll be in 10 years, and he is suddenly sick of talking.

“I hate that corporate shit … because I do things intuitively,” he explains. “I mean, I know how to make the kind of place you and your friends would hang out in. It’s intuitive; I know.” There is this place on the Lower East Side that’s really unpretentious, lit exclusively by candles, that I personally would really love. Stephen Starr knows because he’s been focus-­grouping me, asking what I think of Continental Midtown (er, not much), what I think of Barclay Prime (gorgeous, not my price point), what I think of every name. He wants to do a bar next to the old Continental with designer Shawn Hausman, sort of like the place on the Lower East Side, someplace my friends and I would go. Only Old City would ruin it, and he can’t do it in Northern Liberties, because that would be “expected,” and he’d like to do it maybe in the area north of Chinatown, but he hasn’t settled on a place yet. …

Instead, however, he will spend the year trying to replicate restaurants he has already conceived: second and third Buddakans in New York and Atlantic City, a third Continental in Atlantic City, a second Morimoto in New York. With Buddakan, the tried-and-true Asian fusion hangout that he’s adapting as a 300-seat spot in the Chelsea Market this summer, Starr risks being ridiculed for taking an eight-year-old concept to the five-minutes-ago Meatpacking District.

Wait, he’s already being ridiculed for that: “Buddakan was very much modeled after restaurants in New York,” offers Craig LaBan, the influential Inquirer food critic. “I don’t understand why he’s going there.” A little later in our conversation, LaBan calls the restaurant “very 1998,” and wonders why Starr “wouldn’t rather be a big fish in a small pond,” adding that Starr is “literally a nobody in New York,” where “the risk is so much greater.”

This is the sort of risk Starr loves to take publicly — a test of his hipness instincts. He didn’t want to build Buddakan in New York, he claims, but when he saw the space, he knew he had to, it just screamed for a Buddakan. “Buddakan will be successful in New York [because] it’s been the most successful restaurant in Philadelphia for eight years,” and New York is “just like here, with more people.” (Granted, Buddakan in New York will not resemble Buddakan Old City — Parisian designer Christian Liagre, of Hakkasan and Mercer Hotel fame, has seen to that.) In actuality, none of the risks Starr will take this year is that great. The New York ventures have been loudly encouraged by Starr’s bankers at Commerce Bank, who hope to convince the debt-averse Starr to take on a larger credit line. And for every fierce competitor he’ll go up against in New York, there are thousands of wealthy diners — a few dozen of whom actually know who Christian Liagre is.

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