Bistro Confidential

Maggie and Rob Wasserman saved Rouge once. Can they do it again?

MAGGIE WASSERMAN (née Stein) isn’t worried. She sips a cup of sweet-potato soup inside Rouge, the restaurant that was once her father’s darling and is now her own family’s bread and butter. Spring is in the air. And spring, when the trees bloom green and the sidewalks blossom people, is Rouge’s season.
For 10 years, Rouge — with its power lunches and drinking lunches and ladies who lunch and lunchers who gossip about who left last night with whom, before the ink on the divorce paper was even dry — was the center of the universe for a certain group of Philadelphians. Many socialites couldn’t remember what Rittenhouse was even like before Neil Stein opened the cozy bistro with sidewalk seating. And then, in July, came Stephen Starr’s Parc. Fifty yards away, the new bistro out-sized, out-Frenched, even out-buzzed the decade-old hub of buzz. And Maggie says she’s happy it’s there.
Maggie, 31, and her 36-year-old husband, Rob — who together rescued Rouge in 2005 after a tax-fraud conviction landed Stein in la bastille for almost a year — admit that yes, they saw a dip in diners when Parc opened. How could they not? Rouge is old; Parc is new. Rouge is pretty; Parc is stunning. Rouge has 80 seats; Parc, almost 300. But Rob says they’ve actually noticed an uptick lately: “Starr places are a phenomenon for the attraction they generate,” he says. “For us, it’s meant even more people coming this way. People drink here before they eat there, or they drink there before they eat here.” It’s symbiotic, he says. Synergistic.
Of course, Maggie’s life has had its own sort of synergy: She whiled away her childhood Saturdays atop a bar stool, nibbling chicken parm and drawing pictures while her father scuttled about his restaurant. (Those were the Marabella days, after Fish Market made Stein a success, but before Striped Bass and Rouge made him restaurant royalty.) She grew up immersed in it all, then left to study communications and theater at the University of Arizona. When she returned to Philly in 1999, her father offered her a managing gig at his thriving new bistro. She elected to waitress instead.
“People here still tell stories about my waiting skills,” Maggie says. “I was terrible.” She left when a friend started up a retail website and hired her as his clothes buyer; that led to a buying job at Urban Outfitters, and from there, life took off. She met Rob (at Rouge, actually — “We shook hands, and I swear it was electric”); they married. After two years gallivanting about Hong Kong in glamorous jobs, they returned in ’04 to take on Rouge after Neil started to go under.  
“Rouge was a jewel,” Rob says, “and we just didn’t want to see it fail.” And so they bought it (inheriting nothing but debts and some regulars), mending fences with vendors and swapping old decor with shiny new replicas. “We kept everything the same and just replaced it so it was fresh,” Maggie says. “The concept was already there, and people liked it.”

TODAY’S QUESTION: WILL people still like it? Will they flutter around Rouge as they have in seasons past? To woo them, there’s a new spring menu, and a smart $16 lunch with mini burgers and petite cups of soup. Evolution, says Rob, is a necessity — but wholesale change is the enemy. “If you change yourself in this economy, or any crisis,” he says, “that means you’ve lost confidence.”
Confident that their many loyalists can keep the place going, Rob and Maggie want — and expect — more than that, including a Rouge deux, likely to debut in D.C. They have no plans to leave Philly. And for now, they remain Rittenhouse fixtures, as much as all those well-coiffed, wrinkle-proof social butterflies flitting around the Square, as much as the Square itself. You only catch glimpses of dark, pretty Maggie (who’s often at home in Queen Village with the couple’s two young boys), but Rob is omnipresent, with his salt-and-pepper hair and a friendly habit of waving to passers-by strolling past Rouge’s open windows — even if they’re en route to Parc.