He's seven million bucks in the hole and his whole world is closing in, but does he look fabulous, or what?
There's an old saying: You can always tell who the pioneers are. They're the ones with arrows sticking out of their backs. Neil Stein--the bad boy of Restaurant Row, the dandified darling of the Rittenhouse jet set, the man who brought you the world-class four-star fabulousness that is Striped Bass, the Center City block walker who fought tooth and nail with the city to allow sidewalk seating for Rouge and years ago jumpstarted the rebirth of Delaware Avenue with Rock Lobster--well, he has a lot of arrows sticking out of his back these days.
Let's see. There's one from the IRS, which is investigating him for tax evasion to the tune of $4.5 million, as well as for mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud. There's one from the state, which has presented him with a whopping unpaid bill for back taxes. Likewise, the city is looking for its share, including a whole lot of unpaid liquor taxes. Then there's just about everyone who used to work for him at the now-shuttered Avenue B, who say they are owed back pay and tips, not to mention unemployment compensation. There's a long line of unpaid food suppliers and assorted vendors with their hands out, hoping to get their share from the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings that have put Striped Bass and Rouge in court-ordered Chapter 11 limbo. Then there's that nasty little drinking and drug problem that sent him to rehab, causing him to miss the bankruptcy hearings. All told, Stein is $7 million in the hole.
Still, he remains the unflappable master showman--a guy who could "take a leaf on a tree and make Central Park," as his childhood pal and former Striped Bass partner Joey Wolf likes to say. And even with all his current trials and tribulations, his priorities haven't changed: Image is still everything.
So despite the heat from the feds, the state, the city, his vendors, his creditors, his employees and god knows who else--not to mention the fact that Stein is calling PW from inside a rehab clinic where, until last week, he had been drying out and kicking a Percocet habit--his primary concern is what photos we're going to use for this article if he agrees to cooperate. He insists that PW use some shots from a Nic D'Amico photo session for a Philly Style stroke-piece published last spring. And it's easy to see why: Simply put, he looks fabulous. And in Stein's world, if you look good, you are good. And these days Neil Stein is trying so very hard to be good.
Right now he's holding court at Rouge, enthroned tableside like the pope of Rittenhouse, his back to the wall, a panoramic view of the Square to his right, his sumptuously appointed supper club to his left, a tiny cell phone pressed to his ear and a thousand-watt grin flashing across his pearly whites as PW arrives.
"Excellent, excellent," he purrs into the phone before hanging up. Seems that Striped Bass was sold out the last two nights--news he can use. Like his restaurants, Stein looks great from across the table. Three days out of rehab, he is, as ever, immaculately coiffed, stylishly attired, impeccably accessorized, precisely unshaven and tanned a rich caramel brown.
At 62, he looks fit, rested and quite probably nipped and tucked, albeit tastefully so. "The key to what happens next is me," he says. "For the first time in my life the most important thing in my life is me. I just spent 30 days in a retreat where they taught me that. And for the first time in maybe 50 years I have been sober for more than a week. Maybe 50 years. No, 40 years, at least, or 45 even. Let's see. I think I was sober at 17, but at 20 I certainly wasn't. Anyway, the hardest 30 days I've ever spent in my life. So right now it's not about Striped Bass, it's not about Bleu, it's not about Rouge--it's all about me."
On Memorial Day Stein checked himself into the Caron Foundation, a rehab center located near Reading. He says he'll always remember the six days he spent detoxing if he ever thinks about picking up a Percocet again, or a drink, for that matter. "The hardest six days of my life," he says. "Screaming 'Motherfucker!' at the nurses and 'Get the fuck out of my face, I'm dying!' It was as hard as the day my dad died. And I'm still detoxing. You don't lose all that booze from 40 years and 9,000 Percocets in just 28 days. But on the seventh day I felt a lot better."
His days at the Caron Foundation were a stark contrast to la dolce vita he's accustomed to. He shared a closet-sized dorm room with a tattooed 23-year-old bisexual crack addict. Up at 6:30 a.m., showered and shaven and down to the cafeteria for breakfast by 7. Then an hour of prayer and meditation, then two hours of lectures. Then lunch followed by another two hours of lectures and group therapy, then dinner and early to bed only to do it all over again.
Through it all he managed to keep up on the latest tremors in his reeling empire. Most patients at Caron have very limited phone privileges, but then Stein isn't most patients. "[Some of the other patients] found out I was using the phone every day, 15 times a day," he says. "So this guy comes up to me and he's got big muscles, looks like one of those motorcycle dudes. He says, 'I hear you're the boss around here. What do I need to know?' I said, 'Get the fuck away from me, will ya? Just go to the classes and you won't have to worry about a thing.'"
All of his current financial troubles, he says, stem from his inability to climb out of the bottomless money pit that was Avenue B, the doomed upscale eatery on Broad Street that he finally shut down in May. The plan was to feed the Kimmel Center crowd--and Stein opened his doors more than a year prior to the performing arts center's completion and sat waiting--but somehow the concert and theater crowd never made it across the street en masse.
"Was it before its time? Yes. Was it pioneering? Yes. Was it a year or two early? Yes," he says. "I kept taking money out of Rouge and Striped Bass and Bleu to keep Avenue B going. I was sure it was going to eventually work once the Kimmel Center hit its stride. But it didn't. Why? I don't know. Was it too pricey? Was it me battling myself changing chefs every year? Was it Gabe Marabella, my partner and friend for 25 years, who, personally, I don't think worked as hard as he could have? Or maybe he did. Maybe that was as much as Gabe could have given himself. After all, I do love the guy. But in the end we never had one profitable week. We had weeks where we made $80,000, but that's not enough to turn a profit."
The previous day's Inquirer features a story about how Stein's Avenue B employees never got their final paycheck or tips, despite promises that they would be paid up to the last hour. According to the article, they also discovered that Meal Ticket Inc., the company that administers all of Stein's restaurants, never paid for their unemployment benefits, effectively leaving them jobless and ineligible for compensation. "Yeah, I feel terrible that Avenue B employees couldn't get their last paycheck," he says, commenting on the story. "But you know, it was out of my control. There was just no money. And [under the terms of the bankruptcy settlement] I can't touch a dollar."
As for the unpaid taxes, well, Stein believes his accountants just got so befuddled with all the money being rerouted out of Striped Bass and burning off in the atmosphere before it even touched down at Avenue B that, um, they just sorta lost track. "I'm lucky I have friends in high places who like Neil Stein," he says. "I'm not asking for favors--what I'm asking for is time. I want to pay the taxes. And if they give me some time I'll be alive and they won't lose Neil Stein in Philadelphia. And that's all I have to say. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart. It's not a threat--it's the truth."
To imagine Philadelphia without Neil Stein, you'd have to go back to the mid-'60s, just before he started Mimi Says, his "sinful suburban supper club," which was, by all accounts, about as close as Cheltenham ever got to the swinging '60s--think Austin Powers mod with a Julie Christie look-alike singing Bacharach on Fridays.
Back then Philadelphia dining was a rickety rope bridge spanning the yawing chasm between the cheesesteak stand and Bookbinders: lowbrow oafishness or stiff, gray old-money exclusivity. Stein helped bring glamour, style, sophistication and sex appeal to the city.
He cut an Andy Warholian profile: just 25, jetting around in his Jaguar, never far from a glass of Cutty Sark, a babe on each arm. He was married right out of high school to a girl named Angel DeFrancesco, and the father of two. Neither the family nor the restaurant would remain intact by the end of the '60s. The babes only stuck around until the Jaguar got repossessed.
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