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The Continental in Old City is closing — at least for now

Stephen Starr said he is not positioning the shutdown as permanent. He said he wants to reinvent it, perhaps changing the name.

Stephen Starr in a booth at the Continental, 138 Market St., in 2015.
Stephen Starr in a booth at the Continental, 138 Market St., in 2015.Read moreFILE PHOTOGRAPH

The Continental in Old City, which launched Stephen Starr into the restaurant business amid the rattling of cocktail shakers, will close for at least the fall and winter seasons on Saturday, Oct. 3, nearly a month after its 25th anniversary.

Starr said he is not positioning the shutdown as permanent, though he said he wants to reinvent it.

The Continental has been caught in the pandemic, its warren of snug dining rooms unsuitable to social distancing.

The one-story building at the southeast corner of Second and Market Streets was an old-time diner of the same name before he and designer Owen Kamihira added now-iconic oversize olive light fixtures over the window booths, plopped a stack of rotating dice onto the roof, and converted the coffee station behind the counter into a bar.

» READ MORE: Flashback | The Continental at 20: A history

“Some say it was the first craft cocktail bar, serving 40-plus types of martinis,” Starr wrote in a statement. “Its global tapas cuisine of shared plates started a new trend in dining. If the walls could talk, they would have incredible stories to tell. With only partial indoor occupancy allowable in the city, we believe this is the perfect time to close and reinvent this incredible spot. We know it has another life, another great purpose. The Continental holds sentimental value for many, including myself. So I assure you, that we will re-create it and reemerge with renewed energy and excitement.”

Starr recalled looking across the street at dusk on the night before the opening in September 1995 and assessing the work. “It was magic," he said. "The restaurant just glowed. It was very emotional. We knew it was going to be a hit.”

Everyone wanted to fill one of the 48 seats (now 150): movers and shakers, office workers, restaurant folk, students, singles, young couples, out-of-town celebs. Bradlee Bartram’s original menu was a mishmash: crab pad Thai, beer-battered shrimp and calamari, and shrimp scampi.

The public couldn’t really handle the “up” drinks, as Starr said in a retrospective published in 2015. The chocolate martinis made of Absolut and crème de cacao in a chocolate-rimmed glass were potent, “and it got out of control quickly,” he said. "I would work the bar Sundays and I seriously thought about selling [the place]. They were passing out at the tables. I was getting disgusted.”

One Sunday morning, Starr said he got a call from the alarm company and heard that a customer who had fallen asleep on the toilet after one too many cocktails was wandering around the restaurant. “In the version I remember,” said Kevin Stout, who started as a doorman six weeks after it opened, “Stephen called [the restaurant] to talk to someone and the guy picked up the phone and said, ‘Hello, Continental?’ … While it was kind of funny to us, Stephen wasn’t all too happy.”

The Continental spawned Continental Mid-town at 18th and Chestnut Streets, which opened in 2004 and is not affected by the closing, plus now-shuttered outposts in Miami and Atlantic City.