Stephen Starr Is an Innovator

In defense of the Philly food scene visionary that started a revolution.

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.