Aug. 26, 1998, dinner hour. Traffic jam on the 300 block of Chestnut Street in Old City.
Opening night of Buddakan, Stephen Starr's revamp of the 19106 post office into an Asian-inspired hot spot, complete with an oversize gold-leaf Buddha smiling serenely over an 18-foot community table, a floor-to-ceiling, plate-glass waterfall in front of the host stand, and waiters dressed in sheer pajamas.
This was Starr's $1.5 million comeback. His Continental martini bar at Second and Market Streets three years before was a roaring success, while the next project, a quirky Soviet-theme vodka bar called Cafe Republic, flopped after a year in a dodgy part of town: 22nd and South; it's now a Starbucks in one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the city.
Twenty years later, Buddakan still has juice, after spawning outlets in New York City and Atlantic City — all part of Starr's empire of nearly three dozen restaurants.
On weeknights in the summer, the slow season, the kitchen at 325 Chestnut St. will feed 300 people. Come Saturday nights in the fall, the count can double, says general manager Leah Patterson.
The Old City restaurant will mark the china anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 26 with a special menu; the opening chef, Scott Swiderski, will be in the house with current chef Nery Hernandez. They'll bring back some classic dishes, such as the edamame ravioli, crab fried rice, Chinese eggplant, and the crying chocolate dessert.
Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, and Jonathan Demme took over the restaurant for the premiere of Winfrey's movie Beloved shortly after the opening.
Bruce Willis enjoyed Buddakan so much while filming The Sixth Sense (1999) that he invited the staff to a party at a soundstage in the old Civic Center. Willis played a private show with his band, Bruno and the Heaters.
Will Smith shot a scene from his "Freakin' It" video at the communal table, taking over the restaurant from morning through midafternoon one January day in 2000.
Among the celebrities who've eaten there are Joni Mitchell, Robert De Niro, and Mick Jagger. Politicos of all stripes, including Bill Clinton and John McCain, too.
The same dumpling-maker, a woman known as Mama Ha, is still in the kitchen.
The angry lobster — a wok-seared three-pounder served with lobster mashed potatoes, wok-charred vegetables, and coconut curry sauce — was priced on the opening menu at $48. That's $74 in today's dollars. It's no longer on the menu; the current lobster dish (a more modest $39) is kung pao-style with chili-Szechuan sauce, cilantro, and peanuts.
Edamame ravioli in a truffled Sauternes-shallot broth was one of the most popular dishes from Day One. In 2006, the chef at the New York Buddakan — a guy named Michael Schulson — updated the rav into a har gow dumpling. The preparation migrated to Philadelphia and then to Atlantic City.
Scott Swiderski, the opening chef, stayed on for 12 years — an almost-unheard-of tenure with a restaurant.
The Philippe Starck chairs are covered with fabric printed with faces. You can still see Sarah Starr, the restaurateur's oldest daughter, as a child. She is now 27.
Starr initially conceived the restaurant as Cuban with the name Babalu — as in, Ricky Ricardo/I Love Lucy. He ditched that idea and then became wedded to opening a restaurant carrying the name Blue. But restaurateur Neil Stein announced plans to open Bleu, a French restaurant where Starr's mega-hit Parc is now, sending Starr back to the drawing board. He chose an Asian concept to counteract the high-end stylings of Susanna Foo, then a posh room on Walnut Street at Sydenham (where Chipotle is now).
Design-wise, Starr was inspired by the lobby of the Delano in Miami and wanted to capture that feeling.
Although Starck did not take on the restaurant design project, Starr and team did it themselves, inspired by Starck. However the furniture is all Starck — at the time you couldn't buy them on the open market.
The name grew out of Starr's previous life as a music promoter. The first act he booked was Cheap Trick at the War Memorial in Trenton. The group's seminal album was Live at the Budokan.