With the effects of the coronavirus pandemic entering an eighth month, it’s decision time for Stephen Starr, the region’s most prolific independent restaurateur.
Starr, who expressed pessimism about the future of the business last spring, seems cautiously optimistic now.
Pete’s Place, a so-called ghost kitchen, opened on Oct. 1 inside Serpico restaurant at 604 South St. with a takeout and delivery menu inspired by chef Peter Serpico’s Korean heritage. Serpico itself remains closed.
On Oct. 3, Starr closed the Continental in Old City, the restaurant that put him on Philadelphia’s dining map in 1995, but said it was not permanent. The restaurant’s configuration does not lend itself to social distancing. He said he planned to redo the location, at Second and Market Streets, next spring. As what? He would not say. His employees were offered jobs at his other restaurants.
Two days later, Starr announced the permanent shutdowns of the Continental and Buddakan locations at Atlantic City’s former Playground Pier, which had been closed since mid-March and faced grim prospects under New Jersey’s 25% indoor occupancy rule. About 100 employees lost their jobs. “We tried everything we could to keep the restaurants open, and we looked at every scenario,” Starr said. “The lease is up in 2022, which would allow only another year to make it work.” The restaurants were among the few remaining businesses on the pier.
After an uneasy period at the start of the pandemic, 16 of Starr’s 19 restaurants in Philadelphia — including Parc, El Vez, and The Love — are now open.
Only Serpico, Pod, and Alma de Cuba are idle. Starr said he is awaiting the return of students and staff to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University before returning Pod to action at 3636 Sansom St.; it opened in 2000. Starr said he may change the concept of Alma de Cuba, which he and chef Douglas Rodriguez opened in 2001 at 1623 Walnut St.
Starr also is waiting until April 2021 to open LMNO, a Mexican restaurant with a strong entertainment component, in Fishtown. That project, with a $5 million price tag, had been expected to open in April 2020.
Starr closed Upland in Miami, but is keeping his three other South Florida restaurants. In New York, only his ultraposh Le Coucou and Veronika are still closed, though he said that they would restart once the city allows indoor dining at 50% occupancy. His two restaurants in Washington, Le Diplomate and St. Anselm, are open.
“Washington and Miami are not only surviving, they’re thriving,” Starr said. The District allows indoor dining at 50% of occupancy while Florida has no restrictions.
Nationally, pundits are predicting a bleak future for the restaurant business, especially for smaller operations that lack the wherewithal to weather a crisis. Locally, the empty office towers have ruined Center City’s lunch business.
Still, restaurants are opening, though blockbusters on the horizon are few.
Starr said the success of outdoor dining has buoyed his outlook. “Our people did a great job moving forward and cutting expenses,” he said. “We were able to pay our bills. We’ll see how the winter goes.”
One hedge: He is developing two more delivery-only kitchens for Philadelphia, specializing in pizza and tacos.