Years after ushering in a new, more fabulous Center City, Neil Stein’s Rouge is still reveling in its Rougeness.

“It's like a theater!” says Michael Tortora. It’s a Friday, five o’clock, and the salt-and-pepper-haired lighting designer and Rouge regular (Rouge-ular?) is showing off the restaurant like it’s his home. Which it is, kinda. “There’s the velvet curtains, and the proscenium arch,” he says, gesturing at the frame around the open bistro doors, “and all the seating outside. And the play is Rittenhouse Square.”

He sips his martini and looks out at the park across the street. It’s true that as entertainment, it does not disappoint. There’s a guy inexplicably blasting “Copacabana” on a stereo at the 18th and Walnut entrance. A wraith-like older woman with long blond Barbie hair and teenager clothes picks her way through the park, and clipboard-toters from CARE International shout aggressively at suited office-workers hustling home. There are jugglers and break-dancers and even an accordion player in lederhosen.

But after a moment, when Michael turns his attention back to the bar — where an Eartha Kitt CD is playing at a near­deafening level, and hostess Reenie McDonnell, with a small dog in one hand and a disposable camera in the other, is taking pictures of the other Rouge-ulars, a motley collection of people of different ages and eccentricities, to send to Rouge’s former owner, Neil Stein, now in prison for tax-evasion — you realize he’s got it backwards. The park is just the opening act. The real show, ladies and gentlemen, is Rouge.

ROUGE! JUST THE NAME sounds theatrical, like a bizarre and lurid traveling carnival, which it is. Rouge! The Experience has descended on Rittenhouse Square every spring for the past nine years, staying on until well nigh October. People take their Lamborghinis, Jaguars, Rolls-Royces out of their suburban garages and drive them into the city just to see — and become a part of — the spectacle. And what a spectacle it is: the tables that line either side of the sidewalk, creating what restaurant publicist Peter Breslow calls “the gauntlet” of Philly Girls — you know the ones, round faces and year-round tans, straightened-hair highlights and high heels, clothes by Bebe, noses by Sal Calabro, all called Michelle. Then there are the women stuffing small dogs into bags, and recently divorced men wearing wild pants and sipping strong drinks alone. There are Philadelphia boldface names, and those who look as if they could be boldface names, like that woman in the tight white outfit, who looks like she could be on her day off from a Ron Jeremy movie, or that edgy goth couple who could be rock stars except that on closer inspection, it’s clear their outfits came from the King of Prussia mall. And there’s … that guy. Who is that guy?

“He ees a nobody,” says Roni Koresh, of the Koresh Dance Company, who is sitting outside at his favorite table, where he can smoke. He tosses his long and fluffy mane of hair, crosses his snakeskin boots at the heels, and looks witheringly at the man, who is clad in a pinstripe suit, a pink shirt and mirrored sunglasses, and leaning back in one of the bistro chairs, puffing on a massive cigar. “If you have to smoke a cigar that big — you are a nobody,” Roni Koresh says, raising his eyebrows to suggest that Roni Koresh does not need a big cigar to prove anything.

“Everyone there is either rich or they want to be rich, they’re famous or they want to be famous,” says Sharon Pinkenson, who runs the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. Sharon is a Rouge-ular — she had her wedding reception at Rouge — and she can often be spotted there, her tiny tanned face poking out of her extraordinary mane of blond ringlets, sipping her signature drink, the Pinky, the recipe for which she carries around on business cards. At Rouge, Sharon schmoozes not just with ritzy Philadelphians and clients, but also with people she knows from her travels in Aspen, St. Barts, Cannes. “Jet-setters have jet stops,” she says. “And Rouge is one of those stops.”

For Roni Koresh, Rouge is like a little slice of European café society, a place “where artists and intellectuals can exchange ideas.” As long as, presumably, they’re the sorts of artists and intellectuals who can afford $12 Bellinis. “Right behind you is Scott Brooks, who did the Wassup? Budweiser commercials,” Koresh says, twisting the hair into a bun, leaning in intently. “You see what I mean? Artists.

He’s not the only one moved to make an artistic analogy. “It’s like a painting,” says Michael Tortora, after his second martini. “You look at those Degas paintings, Monet, and people are all laughing and drinking and everyone’s frozen for the moment.”

Rouge may not quite be Philadelphia’s version of Le Café de Flore, but it’s more bohemian than, say, the Palm, where fat men In Charge of Things hunker down for power lunches. Rouge is about social, not business, networking. Still, it draws a fair amount of what this magazine likes to call Power People, who talk over the music and click expensive glassware and jostle against each other in that small area like — well, like big fish in a little pond.

“Rouge was the first place I ever met Corey Kemp, who’s now in the can,” says Stu Bykofsky, Daily News columnist. “He was sitting with Ron White, of course, and Jerry Blavat. Even then I remember thinking he seemed a little fishy,” muses soothsayer Stu. “Maybe he was nervous to be seen with Ron White … ­although I don’t know why they would have gone to Rouge, then. It’s a real see-and-be seen place. It’s like hanging a neon sign over your head.”

Reader, at this point we must disclose that Philly Mag’s top editors can often be found among this group of elbow-rubbers: “I see Larry Platt there all the time,” says Meryl Levitz, of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, “and Tom McGrath, and who’s that other one? Bob Huber. The three of them. They’re there when I get there, and there when I leave. Who’s running things over there, anyway?” The answer, Meryl, is no one. We’re running wild and unchecked. But our leaders are only men, and who can blame them? On a balmy afternoon, it’s hard to resist the pull of Rouge. From the corner of 18th and Walnut, it appears to be fairly waving at the tired office-worker, like some exotic tentacled creature, reaching and stretching and showing off its plumage. Look at Rouge from any point in Rittenhouse Square, and you can see that some confluence has transformed it from simply a place to the place. Maybe it’s a break in the trees or the position near the intersection, but it’s got a sort of golden aura, while the restaurants next to it — namely, Devon and Bleu, which opened subsequent to Rouge’s success — look like cheap knockoffs in comparison. Toward the end of a recent evening, while Rouge was still in full swing, a homeless person dozed in a chair outside of Bleu.

“Rouge is like Armani, and Devon is like Today’s Man,” says the ever-quotable Peter Breslow. “I don’t even know what Bleu is. It’s like Men’s Wearhouse.”

Others are more melodramatic: “It’s like the sun doesn’t shine over there,” says Roni Koresh, a shudder in his voice. He loosens the hair and lets it fall around his shoulders, as if to protect himself from Locust Street’s bad vibes.

WHEN NEIL STEIN, flush from the success of Striped Bass, opened Rouge in 1998, it heralded the beginning of a New Center City. Stein, like the most successful in his business, knew that certain restaurant-goers need more than just a meal. They need a stage. And what better stage was there for his next project than the best one — right smack in the Center of Things, adjacent to the city’s most beautiful, and central, park? So what if he didn’t have clearance from the city for the outdoor seating? He had a vision for this production, and that vision included Montmartre-like bistro tables, and if the city didn’t like it, well, what’re youse goin’ to do about it? “He had a typical South Philly, park-in-the-middle-of-Broad-Street attitude about it,” says Stu Bykofsky. “And he was wrong to be that way. This fucking sidewalk is too thin for these tables,” Stu says, folding his long frame uncomfortably into a delicate bistro chair and ordering the “overpriced steak.” “But something good came out of it.”

“Rittenhouse was like a dead zone, this de-energized strip of place,” says Rick Nichols, the Inquirer restaurant columnist. “All that was there was this tiny sort of Soviet-style state liquor store. It was the dreariest of the dreary. And then all of a sudden there was this open-faced, stylish, almost Parisian kind of lighthearted café. It was like someone turned on the lights.”

And the show started. Rouge did for Rittenhouse Square what Sharon Pinkenson’s hair did for her face — with some money and imagination and will, a little bit of nothing real estate became big and showy and fabulous. With its grand location and Stein’s flashy leading-man qualities, Rouge appealed to a trendy young crowd of Rolls-Royce-driving athletes and Main Line muckety-mucks and divorcées on the prowl. “None of the girls wear panties after 10 p.m.” became Stein’s standard line. And beneath the trend-setters was a supporting cast of neighborhood characters and old friends of Neil, like former deli owner/public relations guy/man-about-town Stanley Green, a septuagenarian who worked the door in a splendid array of spats, ascots, and vintage houndstooth suits. “I don’t think Neil needed someone standing at the door greeting customers,” says Bykofsky, who hung around at the time with Green and Green’s friend and former roommate Harry Jay Katz. “He just did it because he wanted to help out a friend. But Stanley was good at it.”

Even real celebrities have found Rouge’s Rougeosity hard to resist, and some have made cameo appearances, like Mick Jagger, who parked in the far banquette and refused to let other customers near him, even to go to one of only two bathrooms. Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake canoodled at a corner table. Mel Gibson greeted lady fans there when he was in town filming Signs. M. Night Shyamalan himself has been known to drop in, as have Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, and Robert Downey Jr., who doodled on a napkin and gifted it to a waitress. James Franco spent Sunday nights there when he was filming the now-forgotten movie Annapolis, reading at the corner table — which is reserved for customers trying to keep a low profile. That didn’t work out for Britney Spears, who, according to chef Matt Zagorski, was scheduled to meet a suitor — a handsome young heir to a large fortune — at Rouge one night when she was in town, except that the paparazzi descended on 18th Street. “We had to sneak him out the back door,” Matt says. Which makes you wonder: Had this date not been terminated, would Britney have married Kevin Federline? Could it be that the sheer visibility of Rouge was indirectly responsible for Britney Spears’s ultimate ruin?

Probably not. But it did lead to the ruin of Neil Stein. At this point, reader, we assume you know his story: On a roll, Stein opened Bleu down the block, but it was like a lame sequel to a hit movie. Whatever magic made Rouge Rouge — the party atmosphere, the expensive furniture and glassware, the simple fact that it was first—couldn’t be recreated at Bleu. Worse, by the time Stein opened Avenue B on Broad, he was already too deep into his role of dashing restaurateur. Catering to jet-setters made him think he was a jet-setter, and he did what he felt he needed to do for the part. But as when Winona Ryder was caught shoplifting, that turned out not to be a sufficient excuse. Not for the IRS, anyway.

Now, the calls from St. Barts — “I’m standing naked on the balcony right now,” Stein once told a bartender who still works at Rouge, despite being scarred for life — have dwindled into calls from Federal Correctional Institution-Schuylkill. The trendiest crowds have departed for newer, trendier restaurants in what has, due in no small part to Rouge’s lively presence, become a newer, trendier part of town: There’s a branch of Stephen Starr’s Continental and his Barclay Prime, and Denim and the Walnut Room and Tria and, most recently, the gigantic multimedia experience that is the new Lucky Strike bowling lanes, just to name a few — all of which makes Rouge, with its crowd of local fixtures and tourists eating the burger they saw on Oprah, look less like the harbinger of the New Philadelphia than a bastion of the Old Philadelphia, more like an institution than a hot spot. It still does more than 250 covers on a weekend night — not bad for such a tiny place — but even that could change. Rouge might become even less cool next spring, when Stephen Starr — who already took over Stein’s biggest success, his baby, Striped Bass — takes over the beleaguered Bleu in the newly renovated Parc Rittenhouse condos and installs his 13th Philadelphia restaurant, French bistro Parc. Modeled after Keith McNally’s popular Pastis in Manhattan, Parc will be infused with a healthy dose of Starr Power—that is to say, it will be large and over-the-top, with outdoor seating that stretches down the street and around the corner onto Locust.

“That may change things?” says Sharon Pinkenson. “Of course it will change things. Stephen Starr is opening a big fabulous restaurant right down the street. It will change everything.”

“I’LL TELL YOU SOMETHING. The pussy is not what it used to be.” Harry Weiner, stout, five-times-divorced former seafood vendor, is resplendent in electric blue short shorts and a white linen shirt unbuttoned to reveal a hirsute chest tanned to mahogany. “This place used to be packed with pussy. It was all older men and younger women parading around in their fuck-me stilettos.” Harry sighs, his twice-weekly-manicured fingers curling around a cocktail. “It’s not what it used to be.”

Harry Weiner — whose name is indicative of what seems to be his favorite topic of conversation — is, however, still a Rouge-ular. So is Steve Griffin, a retired parole officer and Edgar Allan Poe impersonator who arrives promptly when the doors open every Monday and Friday. Joe Duffy, a cartoonist who lives upstairs (artists!), comes in for Tanqueray and tonics almost daily. There is a guy with the unlikely name of Frank Rizzo who pulls up in various Mercedeses—“always with the most beautiful women.” And Freddy, Neil Stein’s best friend. They come in for camaraderie and cocktails and certain bartenders. Even Striper, Neil’s boxer, has his fans who walk him and feed him and give him love in the absence of his master. Currently, Striper is lying on the back couch like a pasha, fat and panting and being administered to by a group of middle-aged women. “Striper has his own cult,” says Maggie Stein, Neil’s daughter, who has taken over ownership of the restaurant indefinitely. “He has groupies.”

Some people are attracted to Rouge for … other reasons. “There’s this guy who comes in every day — his pants aren’t really buckled, he’s missing teeth,” says bartender Tommy George. “We call him Number 32, because every day he comes in, walks straight over to table 32, stares at that table, and then he leaves. Every. Single. Day.”

To be a Rouge-ular is no small thing. It requires a commitment. “Don’t even tell us you’re a regular if you’re not,” bartender Danielle Thesier says. “Because we know the regulars. Most restaurants, regulars come in once, twice a week. Here, they come every single day. And they stay for hours.”

The true Rouge-ular, for instance, will know not to gripe about the volume of the music, even when it’s a little too loud. “When people complain about the music, I just say, ‘Sorry, that’s the concept, it’s a party in here,’” says Tommy George. “I know if Neil was here and he heard people complaining about the music, he’d go over and turn it up extra loud.”

Rouge-ulars are the ones those RESERVED signs are for, on the prime window tables like number 33, which stands alone and is usually occupied by, as everyone calls them, “F.O.N.s,” for “friends of Neil” — and they’re the ones who are catered to like family. Like Adam Kaufman, a hairdresser who is notorious in restaurants around the city for his legions of food allergies but is gently treated here, so much so that the chef allows him to bypass the waitress and stand in the kitchen to order his meal. “I’m not a celebrity,” Adam says, in his clipped British accent. “I’m just a person who happens to be bright, intelligent and charming. And I need to be looked after by someone with a modicum of intelligence. I don’t know why that’s so hard for most restaurants.”

Tommy George stops into Le Bus on Mondays and Fridays to pick up biscotti or cookies for Steve Griffin. “We used to have a cookie plate on the menu, and when we stopped having it, he pouted,” George explains. “It’s like a family,” he says. “It’s like Cheers. Like an upscale Cheers.”

At 4:30, bartender Doug Fitz arrives for his evening shift. “Jesus Christ,” he says. “Can we please see some new people at the bar?”

For the bartenders, the transition from customer to Rouge-ular is visible. First, you’ll be Amstel Light Guy, or Chardonnay Lady. Then you’ll start chatting. Then—insta-family. That’s what happened with Michael Tortora, the lighting designer. “At first, he would come in and have lunch, like, once a week, a couple days a week, and then he’d leave,” says Danielle Thesier. “Then he started coming more. And then he started staying longer. …”

Now, Michael’s bantering with Ellen Grossberg, a 60-year-old Betsey Johnson look-alike with big red hair and bigger jewelry. Michael and Ellen are both F.O.N.s; they even attended Neil Stein’s sentencing in January.

“Michael and I met here,” Ellen says. “And we came here on my birthday. It was the dreariest, rainiest day—”

“I think we drank 13 bottles of Veuve,” he adds.

“—but everyone was here, and it was just us, and it was really so special.”

“We hit it off immediately.”

“And ever since then, it’s been my job to talk to him until someone cute comes along.”

“Oh, Ellen, you know I only have eyes for you,” Michael says.

They chat for a minute about Ellen’s son, who’s opened up a restaurant in South Jersey called Alphabet Soup. “I’m so happy for him, and for you,” Michael says. “We have to stop talking about it because I’m tearing up.

“She’s amazing,” Michael says when Ellen drifts away to talk with another Rouge-ular. “She’s been through so much”—Ellen’s husband died of lung disease three years ago—“and yet she’s so brave, she’s always in a wonderful mood. She’s an inspiration. And a very dear friend.”

He continues, talking about his birthday last August: “I was on my way here and I saw Ellen on the street, and she had this look, and I knew she had something going on. And there was a bottle of Veuve waiting — it ended up being a few bottles — and there were balloons. And Neil had bought me this beautiful cashmere sweater. And it was so wonderful and so surprising, because I had only been coming here for about a year. But it meant something, that on my birthday, this is where I came to be. These are the people I wanted to be with.”

And it’s the people that, in the end, make Rouge not just a place, but the place. Which is why crossing over from hot spot to institution, like turning from a customer to a regular, can be a good thing. To these people, whatever Stephen Starr opens and whatever the next new hot spot is doesn’t really matter. What makes a good show is the cast, and when the main guy’s missing in action, it has to be strong enough to go on. When Neil Stein gets back, his jail time will be just another backstory in a bar full of people who have been through a lot, and Rouge will continue to be what it’s always been: a small place where people with big visions can drink and laugh, and be happy. Just like in a painting.

“I never would have guessed it,” Stein writes from prison, “but Rouge has turned out to be my best creation.”

Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Philadelphia magazine.