Stephen Starr's name hangs on 37 trendy restaurants from Philadelphia to Paris — the bustling Parc, Continental, and Buddakan, the romantic Le Coucou and Talula's Garden, the power centers Barclay Prime and Le Diplomate, and the fun spots El Vez and El Rey.
But for all the food and flash, the gold-leaf Buddhas and birdcage seating, Starr himself says, "I'd rather go home and watch television."
His restaurants may offer plenty of social interaction, but Starr is not the stereotypical glad-handing restaurateur. "I'm not shy," says Starr, whom you'll spot in a sports jacket and dark crew-neck shirt. "I just like throwing the party and watching it from over there."
The parties aren't stopping any time soon. At age 64, and having won the James Beard Foundation's outstanding restaurateur award last year, he has several more restaurants on the way.
"There's no sign of slowing down," said Randi Sirkin, a vice president in his company, who has worked with him for 18 years.
"'Failure' or 'it can't be done' is not in his vernacular," Sirkin says. "He has great instincts — a sixth sense for what the customers want. He's also relentless."
The relentlessness began four decades ago on South Street, where Starr was booking comedy and musical acts while himself barely out of Temple University. After selling Ripley Music Hall and his concert-promoting business in 1990, he summoned memories of his travels to livelier cities to develop restaurants and bars. His first big hit was the Continental, a onetime corner diner in Old City that he transformed into a martini bar.
"Back in Philly in those days, we had Arthur's Steakhouse," Starr says. "It was dull. If you're going to spend a lot of money on food, you've got to get something else along with it. And that was my whole idea."
Tell us how you started.
It was all because of a girl. I'm in college. I definitely had the aspiration of becoming rich and famous — not famous, but wealthy. And I had a girlfriend, and it was right after my mom passed away [when he was 19]. I'm trying hard, I'm making zero money. And the girlfriend was kind of getting sick of me having no money. I had to ask her for a dollar so I could buy a tuna fish sandwich. She dumped me. I started all this to get her back. It's like Rocky getting knocked down. He's angry. His nose is bleeding. I got up, and I was mad. And I said I was never going to put myself in this position again. I tried a little bit harder. I opened a nightclub with comedy, Stars, because I needed something that I thought could make me money. I went to New York to Catch a Rising Star every week, found comedians — Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Richard Belzer — no one knew who they were. And I signed them up.
Can you cook?
I can make a steak. I can make a couple things. I make good scrambled eggs, but I cannot cook. I think I could be a great cook. In my mind, I'm an awesome chef. But I can't get my hands to do what's in my mind. They just don't work together. And I have no patience. Cooking requires tremendous patience and focus. I have a great reverence for chefs. When food's really good, I think it's a beautiful thing. It truly is art.
What defines “failure”?
Not being successful, to me, is a failure. And I remember them and I think the motivation is to open restaurants, one after another, and people say, "Why do you keep opening restaurants?" Part of it, I thought maybe it was my ego or something. But in the end, I think I was opening another restaurant in case the other restaurant went out of business. And I still think that. Subconsciously, I'm still opening restaurants in case the other ones stop making money.
What have you learned that has made you a successful leader?
As I get older, I'm more aware that I must be a good example for my [5,000] employees. [The keys are] relentlessness and a refusal to accept failure. It's so easy to fail at the restaurant business. Every 30 seconds, you can fail. Too much salt, not enough salt. Server goes outside to smoke a cigarette and comes back in and smells like smoke. There's a million things that go on, so you cannot rest for a moment. And as you set the standard that you never can fail, you're going to fail, but you are going to fail far less.
I don't know any businesses like this. You're holding me accountable. You can easily turn on me. You may love me right now, but in 30 seconds, I'm your worst enemy because your daughter's birthday party was ruined because we didn't bring the cake. I cannot let up.
How do you enjoy life away from your business?
I really don't do that much. It sounds pathetic, but I don't. Really, I travel a little bit, but I'm busy opening restaurants. I have children whom I love. That's my biggest joy, and my biggest success. I don't golf. My joy is my children and work. I enjoy working.
What is the common denominator of this restaurant empire and the entertainment businesses you were in?
It's a show. I'm putting on a show every night. That's not cool to say, because the culinary people get very, very upset when you say that. … Every night you walk into a restaurant — and it could be a little restaurant, by the way — that's a show. It doesn't mean it's contrived. It could be something that happens organically. … When I first started doing restaurants here, I was doing something that I wanted to go to. A lot of what I did with restaurants goes back to my music days. An artist would put an album out. You don't want to be a one-hit wonder. I keep wanting to write hits. One after another. And eventually, I'll probably run out of hits.