Stephen Starr Is an Innovator

If you spend enough time loitering in the grumbling underbelly of the Philadelphia restaurant scene, playing its games of inside baseball and peering into its sordid sausage-making process, it’s inevitable that you’ll hear the following arguments over and over (and over) again:

  1. Stephen Starr is a thieving hack who steals all of his restaurant concepts from [insert larger city here, preferably New York].
  2. Stephen Starr will turn [insert hot new restaurant concept here] into a theme-park version of [hot new restaurant concept]. For those of you who are asking yourselves right now, “Hey, what’s the matter with theme parks?,” allow me to translate: People believe Starr will ruin the concept, extinguishing its coolness by his mere presence and destroying it with his Midas touch.
  3. Stephen Starr is a great businessman, but [insert sniff here] he isn’t an innovator.

Our city’s biggest, baddest restaurateur don’t get no respect.

I’ll admit it: I’m guilty. I’ve had more than a few debates in my time that revolved around the previous statements about Stephen Starr. As a food writer (and former food editor for this magazine), I covered him, incessantly, as it is inevitable that anyone writing about the restaurant scene in Philly must, for seven years.

For it’s impossible to consider any discussion of the Philadelphia dining scene in the past 20 years without acknowledging our Armani-clad Goliath. In addition to the sheer size of his empire—he has 20 restaurants currently open, two more Philly spots on the way, and an events company that caters at seven major venues in the city—Starr has been one of the key transformative forces in our evolution from a city that slammed its doors and barred its windows at 5 p.m. to a city that is bubbling over with vitality and life.

Stephen Starr may be many things—oddly elusive for being so omnipresent, occasionally brusque, relentlessly restless—but there’s no denying he’s one of the most brilliant innovators we have. The man is an urban planning genius. He’s a real estate visionary. He’s an alchemist of ambience. Center City as we know it today simply wouldn’t exist without him.

I mean, do you people remember what it was like here in the late ’80s and early ’90s? I do. I remember being thrilled to my very core in the early ’90s because a coffee shop (Rhino Coffee, in case anyone else remembers), a coffee shop, opened up on South Street. That’s how barren it was here—a coffee shop was as exciting as restaurant development got.

So why do so many restaurant nerds choke on their handcrafted gin rickeys if you lay down the argument that Stephen Starr might be not just a clever businessman, but an innovator? Why not give credit where credit’s due?

I think part of this bias against Starr has to do with the fact he’s not a trained chef. In our current era of slavish chef-worship, his razor-sharp eye for location, his skill at creating a scene, his expertise in hiring the right talent and bringing it all together—all are somehow considered lesser because he doesn’t cook the food. But since when is restaurant innovation just about food? Isn’t a truly innovative restaurateur someone who raises the whole experience to a new level? Isn’t an innovative restaurateur someone who creates that elusive stardust magic of real estate, interiors, food and vibe?

Speaking of food, here’s the really unfair part of the well-worn argument that Starr steals concepts: Other Philly restaurateurs praised for being innovative are just as busy “stealing” as Starr (and most would freely admit it, I suspect). Truth is, there’s really nothing new under the culinary sun. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum: Chefs and restaurateurs borrow cuisines, recipes and concepts from each other. It’s a fact.

The Vetri crew? Vetri and his most trusted lieutenants have all followed the same path to the same town in Italy to learn to cook the same way from the same restaurants. They’ve “stolen” the cuisine of Bergamo. Jose Garces takes culinary research trips for his restaurants and then reinterprets those cuisines in his restaurants. (Hello, Chinese-Peruvian cuisine at Chifa.) When Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov, owners of Percy Street Barbecue, took a research trip to Hill Country to seek out legit Texas barbecue and learn to faithfully replicate it back on South Street, restaurant nerds were foaming at the mouth to praise their authenticity. Yet somehow Starr doing the same thing for any of his restaurants is just, for food snobs, evidence that he can’t think for himself. This isn’t to malign any of those talented folks, merely to point out that it’s a fool’s argument to say Starr “steals,” because everyone takes inspiration from somewhere.

How is Starr not an innovator in Philly? Has he not created an entirely new scene—even entirely new neighborhoods—where none existed before? If you remember the anemic state of the restaurant world here 20 years ago, you won’t have a hard time arguing that he brought the vision, along with the business acumen he’s so often praised for. Even more impressive: Most of his places are still open. That’s basically a mathematical impossibility in the restaurant industry. I’d explain it to you, but you’d have to be drunk and doing a sort of kabuki version of calculus to understand why restaurants with wonderful food and the praise of critics tank so often, let alone the ones that stink. Just staying open may be an innovation in and of itself.

Let’s go back to the mid-’90s and the Continental. I was visiting from New York several years after fleeing the grim Philadelphia of the late ’80s. And what was this magical place that had popped up on the corner of 2nd and Market? Where did those magnificent skewered-olive light fixtures come from? More importantly, where did all of these people and this great energy come from? It was clear that Philly was changing … and that Starr’s Continental was both a cause and an effect of that change. It was brilliant, and still is. Would Old City as we know it even exist without Starr? In the same vein, was there a reason to go to the 700 block of Chestnut before Starr lured a Food Network rising star named Masaharu Morimoto to open a sushi restaurant there? How about those grand old side-by-side townhouses on the corner of 18th and Sansom that had been left to decay in one of the most vibrant (and expensive) neighborhoods of Center City? The Dandelion has completed—perfected, even—that corner. Could someone get this guy on the City Planning Commission or zoning board? Let’s get him started on the waterfront, stat. Clearly he knows what to do, and even better, he knows how to get it done.

These days, Starr is doubling down on South Street. He’s hired a former deputy from New York’s famous Momofuku empire to open a Momofuku-style restaurant there. That’s right, on riot-plagued, grotty South Street, riddled with junky jewelry shops and only a smattering of good restaurants: Brauhaus Schmitz, Percy Street, Supper. He sees something bigger in South Street. And maybe that is where Starr’s true genius lies—in putting exactly the right restaurant in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. He opened the restaurants here that Philly didn’t have, that it needed, at the times it needed them.

One more thing—and it’s a big one. Stephen Starr believes in this city. He believes Philly can support all of the vastly different restaurants he’s brought to life. And in a town like this, where nay-saying is a professional sport, where Haterade is like mother’s milk, where no one ever believes that anything will ever change, where we just can’t have nice things, being a believer—and putting your money where your mouth is—might just make you the most innovative guy in town.

New and Notable: Fathom Seafood House

Chef Mike Stollenwerk has had a busy year. First he opened Fish, then he closed and re-opened his original BYOB Little Fish in a new location, and now he’s launched a third, and decidedly more low-key, spot: Fathom. Like many of the dining options at this end of town, it’s a bar-restaurant hybrid: The fare is restaurant-quality, but the atmosphere and decor lean more toward drinking establishment. There are raw-bar options — oysters and clams on the half – shell—but much of the seafood-centric fare is of the stick-to-your-ribs variety, like the Fathom Fries (that would be gravy fries topped with shredded crab and bits of cheese curd), which are just as intense as they sound. Fried “crab Louie,” nuggets of shredded crab salad with spicy chili mayo, is designed to soak up booze and does so nicely, while smoked marlin tacos with jalapeños and crispy shallots are a great idea done in by an inexcusably generic tortilla. But mighty Jonah crab claws swimming in a bowl of garlic butter make up for the transgression.

New and Notable: Indian Restaurant

Keep your eye on West South Street: What once housed dive bars and barber shops is now home to a wine bar (Jet), an award-winning bistro (Pumpkin), excellent cafés (from L’Aube to La Va) and, most recently, a lamely named but solid Indian sit-down from the people who brought King of Tandoor to Fairmount. (What would have been wrong with King of Tandoor II?) The highlights are the charred grilled meats, biryanis and various Indian breads. Overheard: a diner observing, “This garlic naan is like crack!” as he ordered another basket. Service is friendly but slow, and as at Tandoor, you can BYO.

New and Notable: Plenty

East Passyunk has become quite the restaurant destination with the likes of Fond, Salt & Pepper and Le Virtù, but for decent prepared foods, the options have been slim (a teensy selection at Green Aisle Grocery and the questionable offerings at Acme). Enter Plenty, a gourmet-to-go from culinary instructor and ex-Philadelphia Weekly scribe Tim McGinnis and lawyer Jesse Spalletta, who are putting out luscious sandwiches like the hickory house-smoked brisket with cheddar; grab-and-go dinner entrées like coq au vin with mashed potatoes and roasted brussels sprouts; and — this is still South Philly — totally legit homemade meatballs and a daily assortment of pastas. Should you not want to go too far with your grab-and-go, there’s a large communal table for in-store dining.

Drink This Now: XXX Shine

What is it? An 88.8-proof white whiskey from Philadelphia Distilling (the maker of Bluecoat Gin) just hitting state store shelves.

What the hell is white whiskey? Similar to moonshine, it’s unaged, unbarreled whiskey straight out of the still, hence the clear color.

Why do I want to drink it? Because it’s local. Because it’s delicious, with a distinct corn flavor, which it owes to the fact that its main ingredient is Pennsylvania corn. Because it’s incredibly versatile for mixed drinks. And because we told you to.

Philly Restaurateurs Are Getting Into the Farm Business

FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, the phrase “farm-to-table” has been splashed across menus at restaurants of a certain ilk. It’s sort of meaningless — don’t all vegetables come from a farm? — but implies that the chef is fanatical about the provenance of his produce. The “farm” in this “farm-to-table” equation isn’t the same large-scale industrial farm that spits out the iceberg lettuce moldering in your crisper, but is something smaller, more personal. And the logical next link in the “Where does my food come from?” chain is this: Philly restaurateurs are getting into the farm business themselves.

Since last summer, chef Mitch Prensky has been working with Blue Elephant Farm, a 75-acre spread in Newtown Square. While he doesn’t own the farm (its owner is an investor in Prensky’s restaurant, Supper), the farm grows produce exclusively for the restaurant.

Prensky is passionate about using local produce, and the farm is the fulfillment of a longtime dream. But, he says, it’s not easy, and there’s little financial incentive, especially since he travels daily to the farm to pick his own vegetables. “Honestly, the amount of labor that goes into it is far beyond what I’m saving. It’d be a lot easier and probably less expensive if I just bought a zucchini.”

Stepping carefully across an empty lot littered with bits of paper and plastic bottles on a windy day in March, it’s hard to imagine that a forlorn field at the corner of 27th and Master will ever produce anything remotely resembling a zucchini, let alone enough tomatoes, carrots and squash to supply a small chain of restaurants and the local community. But that’s what Cary Borish, owner of Marathon Grill, and Patrick Dunn, a veteran of Philly’s urban-farming scene, have in mind for this 15,000-square-foot piece of city-owned land. After establishing a nonprofit foundation, Marathon Loves Philadelphia, the pair scored a three-year lease from the Department of Public Property to establish an urban farm. Marathon Grill will purchase up to half of the farm’s yield (which will be grown in raised beds and greenhouses), and this will help to subsidize the other half, which Borish and Dunn plan to sell, or in some cases donate, to the farm’s Brewerytown neighbors, who are underserved as far as fresh fruits and vegetables go.

Marathon’s motivation might seem to cynics like a clever bit of altruistic capitalism — the restaurant fundraises in order to funnel money into a nonprofit and then gets cheaper locally grown produce out of the deal — but Borish insists it’s not about the money. “The driving force here is to grow for the community,” he says. “We want to make this produce accessible to everyone.”

Meanwhile, in the decidedly more bucolic setting of Ottsville, Bucks County, landscape designers Sean Roulan and Annie Scott of Food System Design Group are knee-deep in the planning phase for Jose Garces’s 37-acre private farm, which the chef intends to use to supply his seven Philly restaurants (and as a country retreat for his family).

“Jose’s doing some really advanced things here in terms of creating the best-tasting vegetables,” says Roulan. “Even if you’re not concerned for principled reasons about where your food comes from, it just tastes better the more organically or biodynamically it’s grown. It’s really about creating a dish backward.” At this future farm, it’s less about the community and more focused on flavor.

New and Notable: Matador

As long as Garces and Starr keep avoiding the ‘burbs, Main Liners will resort to getting their Spanish-tapas fix from places like this one, where an Amada-slash-El-Vez-inspired menu (tableside guac, paella, roasted suckling pig) doesn’t yet measure up to its urban counterparts. Still, the margaritas are big enough to satisfy dinner guests at Camille Grammer’s. What to nosh: chicken-and-raisin-stuffed chile relleno. What to skip: the crabcake.

New and Notable: Opa

Just when you thought there wasn’t room for another restaurant at the white-hot nexus of 13th and Sansom streets, along comes this stylish Greek spot. The moody-meets-Mediterranean room is dominated by a central bar, which serves up smart cocktails (try the lemony Antho, a crisp dill and vodka sipper) to pair with tasty small plates like saganaki or a trio of adorable mini lamb gyros tucked into waxed paper. Chef Andrew Brown offers larger plates as well (braised rabbit, Creek Stone Farms rib-eye), but it’s hard to resist the snackability of the mezides. 

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