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”

Wein has fine, curly hair, a mouthful of crooked teeth, and a face so young you’d call his generous cheeks baby fat; the effect of this youthfulness, when combined with his penchant for black suits that are a bit too big and tendency to go most places with Stephen Starr, is a sort of Mini-Me quality that plays to Starr’s Dr. Evilness, a Mini-Me-ness that is magnified when you learn that it was Wein whose mind, two months into the job, begat the Barclay Prime $100 cheesesteak.

The $100 cheesesteak, a Kobe-beef-and- foie-gras creation that launched a thousand reaction stories datelined at the intersection of 9th and Passyunk, is the kind of thing that is so Starr it is more Starr than Stephen Starr himself, because Starr is still trying not to be corporate.

“I think that Stephen’s biggest reservation about me before I came was, ‘I don’t know if you really get what we do here, you know, it’s small, it’s not some big corporation,’” Wein muses from his small Market Street office, which until a few months ago took up one-fourth of one large office — SRO headquarters get cozier every month. “In fact, I think he might still say that.” Wein smiles a little. Starr often invokes the c-word to describe Al Lucas, his last operations guy, who came from the Chart House restaurant chain and insisted on living in Narberth, who eventually quit for a job at Cosi; fear of corporate-ness kept Starr agonizing for nine months over the decision to hire Wein. “Stephen has always been sensitive to the ‘corporate’ label,” says David Robkin, the venture capitalist who introduced Starr to his first major investor in 1997, and until recently served as SRO’s de facto chief financial officer.

This is clear when Starr convenes a design meeting to discuss his most corporate of projects, the Continental Atlantic City. It is a project that will take him back to his roots in the godforsaken beach town where he hawked watches as a teenager, where one of his first business partners gambled away a South Street music hall they co-owned in the ’80s, a city of which he is “not particularly fond.” The project was originally planned as an El Vez, Starr’s Mexican concept, until the Continental Midtown opened in July and started doing unheard-of-in-Philly numbers of $300,000 a week, and suddenly Sheldon Gordon was begging him for a Continental.

The Continental Atlantic City is a project, in other words, that Stephen Starr could only be doing for the money. But Starr manages to make the design meeting about “soul.” Starr is pleased, of course, with the success of Midtown — the place is projected to do $13 million this year — but cautions Shawn Hausman, the designer for both the Midtown and the A.C. Continentals, that “you can’t feel the old place there. It’s nothing like it.” Hausman, the renowned designer of L.A.’s Standard hotels and many other landmarks of the asymmetrical-haircut set, furrows his brow and nods. “The soul of the old place,” Starr explains to the room of suit-and-tie-clad architects and baggy-jeaned Hausman, “needs to be there.”