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Has Neil Stein finally grown up?

The businessman is serious about his future.

Restaurateur Neil Stein behind the bar at his restaurant Rouge in September 2004.
Restaurateur Neil Stein behind the bar at his restaurant Rouge in September 2004.Read moreYONG KIM / File Photograph

This was originally published Jan. 10, 1999.

Neil Stein 's cranberry juice arrives on ice, with fruit. Neil Stein does not take ice or fruit.

"Alison, somebody goofed," he says, no emotion in his voice, just the facts. "How are you doing, well?"

The waitress smiles uneasily. "Very well, you? "

"Having a good time. "

And why shouldn't he be? The day is Indian summer glorious and Stein has the best seat at Rouge 98, the Parisian salon that he opened on Rittenhouse Square in a former state liquor store that needed only some floor-to-ceiling French doors and $600,000 in decor to look this fabulous.

Friday afternoon and the place is packed: freshly coiffed women with shopping bags at their sides sipping chardonnay; men with big cigars and little cell phones; and, taking it all in, John Mariani, Esquire magazine's food columnist, working on a heaping bowl of mussels in pesto, a white linen napkin spread across his midsection and two publicists at his elbows.

The waitress returns, sunnily.

"What can we get you first? "

"I would like the right menu," Stein says. He'd been handed dinner menus, not lunch. "I'm sitting in my own restaurant and I don't have the right menu. "

The waitress slinks away. Stein's simmer rises to a boil. "I'm totally direct. I'm always honest. It totally upsets me when this happens. "

He takes a breath and looks out again at "the ocean," as he calls the park, an ever-changing tableau that he had the wisdom to showcase. He is tanned, fit, freckled, with spiking gray hair that whitens around the temples. His attire is a rich palate of grays — the long-sleeved cotton and Lycra jersey with discreet V-neck by Jil Sander, the Armani trousers, the shoes — what shoes! — slipper-soft clogs by J. Fenestrier, the French cobbler to the well-heeled.

"If you check out all the stories about me," Neil Stein, 57, says, leaning in, "I was always the one who walked. "

Something happened to the high-flying bad boy with the quick fists and quicker feet, the visionary with perfectly clear restaurant concepts — Mimi Says, the Fish Market, Marabella's, Rock Lobster, Striped Bass, Rouge — but little patience to see them through.

The evolution of Neil Stein was official one morning in the summer of 1997, as he and boyhood friend Joey Wolf approached each other on narrow Sydenham Street near Striped Bass, the famously successful seafood restaurant they had opened three years before, when each of their larders was near empty.

"It was like the gunfight at OK Corral," Stein recalls.

They had agreed to lock the restaurant's doors for a week and put a price on the place that Esquire had named the nation's best new restaurant of 1994 and was now grossing $5.5 million annually. The 8,500-square-foot Moorish-style palace with its 28-foot ceiling was no longer big enough for the two partners. One would be left owning the place.

"This is as true as it gets, sir," Stein says. "I walked up to Joey and handed him a check from my lawyer's office. It wasn't $200,000 now and the rest of the money later. It was the whole amount. It was the happiest moment of my life. " The check was for $850,000.

Since then, Stein, the one with the rep of taking off when something at his restaurants was not going right, has settled into Rouge and signed papers for his latest creation, a supper club on Walnut Street that will serve a $40 steak and be called Neil's.

He's looking beyond Neil's, even wondering how he and restaurateur Audrey Claire Taichman can create the perfect neighborhood bar — where serious local chefs would rotate through the kitchen, turning out their favorite plates for lucky regulars.

What changed Neil Stein ? His sister has a theory. Maybe, says Sheryl Borish, owner of the Marathon Grill restaurants, "it took all this time for him to grow up. "

She saw the difference emerge as their mother's cancer spread. Sally Stein had always kept a close watch on her son, through his careening highs and lows, the gambling, the drinking, the cocaine, the womanizing. During the many, many months Striped Bass was preparing to open its doors, Sally Stein would walk around the corner from her daughter's restaurant, where she worked the register, and press her forehead to the dark windows on Walnut Street. If she didn't see her son, she'd collar someone: "Where's Neil? Did Neil show up for work? "

"Sally struggled with him for a long time," Wolf says. "There was a rather dry spell between Marabella's and Rock Lobster. Between Rock Lobster and Striped Bass. It was a pretty lean time for Neil, who was not one to think about tomorrow. He was still answering to her as a kid. She was still hollering at him. I don't even know if he was aware of it. "

When it became hard for Sally Stein to stay at her Shore house, Borish made room for her at her own place. As the end approached, Stein would pace around the room uncomfortably.

"He'd ask, `What should I do?' " his sister recalls. "I said, `Just get in bed with Mommy. ' And he did. He would just lie on one side of her and I would lie on the other. It was just very soothing. It was a special time. Very sad and very special. That's when I saw the change in Neil. "

Stein, his sister says, experienced "a turnabout — to be more sincere and to stick to what he's doing. "

Wolf says that Stein "finally realized that 'Maybe I have to change my ways, soften up, just be a little more human. ' As opposed to a fixture. "

Stein acknowledges a change. But he says it happened when he realized how badly he wanted to keep Striped Bass. "I designed it. I built it. I have an incredible passion for it — the passion you have for your wife or a lover. This is the home that Neil really built. Too much hard work in it. "

And there is a second reason. "I said to myself, `What would I do with the money? ' Attempt to open a restaurant? Take a year off? If I did, believe me, it would all be gone. I think I made a wise decision — maybe for the first time in my life. "

He now sits in his favorite place, in the twinkling coppery light of Striped Bass at 5 in the evening, as his highly polished staff in black and white straighten the table settings and inspect the wine glasses for prints. This night, a Monday in November, the restaurant would serve 160 dinners. Average check: $70.

"For the first time in my life I can honestly say I own one of the best seafood restaurants in the country — I'd never say `The Best' because there is always someone else coming up. I think if Striped Bass was in New York or Washington, it would get the recognition it truly deserves.

"There are things missing," he acknowledges. "There's a chair sitting against that wall that is from the Pottery Barn. Yes, he says, Striped Bass serves Montrachet out of wonderful glasses; the flatware is plated silver, not stainless. Yet there are things that are not top level.

"Take that right there" — he's pointing two feet away at a smudge at the bottom of a brass door — "that's brass polish that was never wiped off. Someone didn't do a good job on the door this morning. This business is all about details. "

Details are what drive him, those who have worked next him say: Stein is a man who irons his T-shirts.

"He carries his concept to every detail in the place," says interior designer Meg Rodgers, who has worked on every Stein project since he joined Marabella's on Locust Street in 1983. "When a concept works, it has to smell like it, sound like it, feel like it, taste like it. "

Stein is her most obsessive-compulsive client. "Once he gets on something, he just doesn't quit until it's absolutely perfect," Rodgers says. "He would really rather open a month late and have everything be perfect, than open and have it half-baked.

"If you're going to put on a show, you want the opening night to be grand. "

Her voice mail sometimes records message after message from Stein, starting first thing in the morning and ending in the middle of the night. "I've toured the real estate of Philadelphia, thanks to Neil Stein ," she says. He might look at 25 sites seriously, bring through all the consultants and run the numbers before making a decision on a location.

"He doesn't just jump on something," she says. "He obsesses over it. "

Accordingly, he is capable of second-guessing his best instincts. When the men who owned the building at 1500 Walnut failed to come through with some expected financing for Striped Bass, Stein proposed cutting corners by placing the bar in the middle of the room, blocking the vistas that give it the ambience of a grand hotel in some exotic land. "I went ballistic," Rodgers says. With Rouge, he worried until the eleventh hour whether he had enough chairs to make the place succeed financially.

"He almost made himself ill. I can joke with him, `Neil, if you're having a heart attack, make sure you get off the sidewalk. ' He'll agree with that. "

According to Alison Barshak, the flame-haired chef whose cooking put Striped Bass on the country's gastronomic map during its first three years, Stein is a pioneer, if not a leader, one whose highs and lows come from the intensity he brings to his work and his pleasures.

"He loves beautiful things," she says. "He has an eye for when things are right. Sometimes he doesn't know how to get there, which is where I think we are similar. He just has a really good sixth sense. "

Stein is a man of steady habits. He likes to start the day with breakfast at the Rittenhouse or one of his sister's restaurants — she has five Marathon Grills. He'll begin work at Striped Bass, then stroll up the street to Rouge; he keeps his black Porsche 911 parked nearby. Lunch and dinner are likely to be on Walnut Street, at Brasserie Perrier, or downstairs at Le Bec-Fin or Susanna Foo, or at the Fountain or Swann Lounge or the Saloon — "the cleanest restaurant in Philadelphia," he says.

Just when did he last cook a meal? "It was two years ago. Can I say three? Let's say two, on my deck. I threw a dinner party and cooked for friends. "

The last time he cooked for just himself?

He cannot remember.

His apartment — he moved this summer to a place with river-to-river southern exposure at 21st and Locust — is only haltingly becoming a home. Last spring, his four-year relationship with Center City real estate agent Susan Wasserman ended. "Now that I'm by myself again, life just changes," he says.

He loves his routines. Vacation most years is at the same villa on St. Bart's. It takes him four days to unwind.

"I am a compulsive person," he says. "When I did drugs, I really did drugs. When I ran, I ran marathons. "

He grew up in Mount Airy, the son of two orphans, a gunner on the basketball courts, a shortstop on the sandlots. He played baseball well enough to make all-city and then Class-D ball in Ithaca, N.Y. Before playing ball each weekday, Stein had to cut fish at his father's store, the Fruit Basket, on Wadsworth Avenue. Moe Stein was a big, burly man, 6 feet tall and 210 pounds, "who'd scare the death out of you when he looked at you, but was a big lamb chop," Wolf recalls.

Moe, who went to work at age 11, was ahead of his time, his son recalls, selling carrot juice, freshly squeezed OJ, Zenobia pistachio nuts, dried figs and dates. "My dad taught me everything I know about vegetables and fruit," Stein says.

Neil's first shot at restaurants came in 1966. He was 25 and had been selling men's clothing in Center City and was married to the former Angel DeFrancesco, a ballerina from South Philadelphia. With $5,000 from his dad and the rest of the backing from the landlords of the Cedarbrook Hill Apartments in Cheltenham, Stein opened a supper club in the high-rise. He called it Mimi Says, after his oldest daughter.

At its height, Mimi Says was grossing $25,000 a week. Stein drove a Jaguar and a Mercedes and was living hard — drinking, cocaine, late nights at the club. An impromptu booze-fueled trip to Vegas was the last straw for Angel. Stein came crashing down, his wife and daughter gone, his fancy cars repossessed. By 1971, he was looking for work. Memory of the next year remains blurry: "Who the hell knows," he says. "I couldn't have been doing much. "

Stein hasn't spoken to his oldest daughter in longer than he can bear to say. "Angel always kept me away from Mimi ," he says, looking somewhere distant. "I've never spoken to anyone about it in my whole life. "

On the day Stein's father died in 1973 at age 57, construction began on a seafood restaurant at 18th and Sansom Streets in Center City, where he worked side by side with the woman who would become his second wife, Cyndi Safier. At first, the Fish Market was open only for lunch. It grew from 18 seats to 140 seats. By 1976, the Fish Market was taking in $2.5 million a year, Stein says, and it is where he first made his reputation as a gifted restaurateur. It is also where his cocaine addiction raged, leading to a second divorce and rifts with his family that have taken years to mend.

Subsequent ventures were more fleeting. In 1981, he opened a Bala Cynwyd charcuterie called the Icehouse. Two years later, he was hired to expand the Marabella's chain. He spent 1991 launching Rock Lobster. He had partners on each of the projects, and each time, there were disagreements and Stein moved on.

Then, in 1993, when Stein was living in one room at the Oakwood Apartments and it seemed no one would push their chips behind him or his old friend Wolf, Stein carried a Philadelphia Magazine profile of himself, warts and all, to a group of Orthodox Jews in New York and sold them on the plan for a first-class seafood restaurant in the building they owned in Center City. The Mount Airy boys walked away with the $600,000 they needed.

"I had nothing to lose," Stein says. "I was on a mission to straighten my life out. "

Two years and $2.4 million later, Striped Bass opened to raves that have not relented, even after chef Barshak noisily quit — announcing her departure with a hastily written note. Chef Allyson Thurber came and went, replaced by Terence Feury from Manhattan's Le Bernardin.

Stein and Wolf, who had owned the Corned Beef Academies, clashed over many things, mostly expenses, Stein says. Stein is the lavish one. "Neil is Versace," Wolf says. "I'm Ralph Lauren. "

The two also differed over what it took to achieve greatness, Stein says. Wolf couldn't understand why he should buy the top wine glasses, or why a chef should be paid so much. "It was time for one of us to go," Stein says.

So, after the showdown at OK Corral, Stein was all alone. With the backing of Don Brody, a Philadelphia ticket-agency owner, and Jefferson Bank, he plunged back into the restaurant completely, showing a softer side in the process. Barshak remembers one busy night when a man showed up with no reservation and huffily announced that he knew Neil Stein.

The man he announced this to was Neil Stein.

Stein went back to the kitchen, told Barshak she'd never believe what just happened, then told the man that Mr. Stein wanted to make sure he was taken care of and seated the man himself.

That is the Neil Stein with a sense of humor. The one who's finally getting comfortable in his own skin. It's been 15 years since he's touched cocaine, Stein says. Barshak attests to his abstinence, and marvels that doubters still suspect him of the worst: "People want to believe there is something wrong when you're successful. There has to be some other reason, they say. You can't be that talented. ' "

His biggest vice since then might be the Belvedere vodka martinis he drinks at Striped Bass each night — "never more than two, never less than one," he says. But lately he has been replacing these with something lighter — white wine. Since his taste is for fine Meursaults, cocaine might be cheaper.

Which brings us back to his chair at Rouge, named this month by Bon Appétit magazine as among the best restaurants to open in the nation in 1998. Here, in one of the $1,200 thrones he insisted on having to give people the sense of jazz-age Paris, Stein sits thinking about what's ahead. Neil's.

In early, he was still in the adjective phase: masculine, sexy, sultry, glamorous. America's mood, he was saying, is much as it was just after World War II, when: "People were feeling very happy. They were smoking cigars, drinking scotch, and dancing to Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday. Everything was robust. People wanted to eat big steaks and lobsters.

"Look around," he says. "You've never seen so many martinis and Manhattans. Women are wearing long skirts with slits. " This is his inspiration for a big-time, native steak house.

In the days long before Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance, the good steak houses were named for the men who ran them: Arthur's, Mitchell's and Lew Tendler's. Jimmy's Milan and Benny the Bum's.

Neil's, he says, will be to steaks what Striped Bass is to fish. He's signed with the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the Ritz Theatres and Moreland Investments to build a combination movie house, art deco supper club and eight-story garage on the northern edge of Rittenhouse Square.

And it should be sizzling in time for the Republican National Convention in summer 2000.

Unless, of course, Neil Stein has second thoughts along the way.