The Last Temptation of Neil Stein

He's seven million bucks in the hole and his whole world is closing in, but does he look fabulous, or what?

By Jonathan Valania
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 25, 2003

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By 1973 he had a new idea for a restaurant--the Fish Market: affordable fresh-catch entrees and a retail fish counter in front. When he opened the Fish Market, the place did a modest lunch business with just 18 seats. Within a year there was a line out the door and seating for 120. "We were grossing $18,000 a week," says Stein.

By 1976 the Fish Market was raking in $2.5 million a year. The idea for the Fish Market came to him after years spent plucking carp out of the tank--pinching them right between the eyes--for all the Catholic ladies who lined up on Fridays at the Fruit Basket, his father's store in Mt. Airy. "I wasn't allowed to play baseball until I learned to filet a fish," says Stein, who made All-Public League shortstop at Germantown High. "By 13, I could filet anything."

Moe Stein was, by all accounts, a gentle giant of a man with hands the size of Easter hams. Like Stein's mother, Moe was an orphan. He was beloved in the community, donating food to the less fortunate in his old South Philly neighborhood every Friday, and when he got into a punch-up with a cop and was hauled into jail, all the neighboring merchants went down to the jailhouse and successfully petitioned for his release.

Moe also liked to gamble, dropping $200 to $300 a day on the horses and the numbers. The day Moe dropped dead at 57--just fell off his chair down the shore, dead before he hit the floor--was the day Neil started construction on the Fish Market. Despite the fact that the Fruit Basket was, according to Stein, bringing in a couple thousand a week in profit, when his father died there was nothing left. Nothing at all.

Cocaine put the kibosh on the Fish Market as well as his second marriage. By his own best estimate he tried his damnedest to Hoover up half of Columbia. But he learned a valuable lesson. "I was good enough for downtown," he says.

By 1983 he was converting Gabriel's Horn on Locust Street into Marabella's. "It was a little too sophisticated. What we needed at the time was a moderately priced classy restaurant," says Stein. Out went the $600 chairs and in came the menu with everything priced between $2 and $9. Within a year Marabella's was grossing $60,000 a week. Attempts to open new locations met with mixed success, and before long Stein was handed a check for $180,000 and politely shown the door.

By 1991 Stein had lined up a troika of moneymen--Marty Keenan (former owner of Keenan Motors), Albert Taxin (then owner of Old Original Bookbinders) and Barry Sable (owner of Sable Jewelers)--to launch Rock Lobster, the first restaurant/nightclub on the Delaware. The concept was simple: Sell lobsters by the water, and when the sun goes down, let people get juiced and party under the stars.

Rock Lobster was a smash, but Stein didn't last more than two seasons. "One night we were all partying, having a good time," recalls Stein. "And then Albert [Taxin] fell down on the dance floor. We took him to the hospital and found out he needed surgery for a malignant brain tumor. When he died it was really hard for me. Then one day, when I was down and out, Marty Keenan walked up to me and handed me a check for $5,000 and said, 'See ya, Neil, you're out.' He's lucky I didn't kill him. Very lucky."

By this point he was pretty much down to the Armani suit on his back and the bottle of cologne that went with it. Then Stein teamed up with Joey Wolf, his friend since they were both 13 and playing stickball in Mt. Airy. The pair was a study in contrasts: Joey was the sensible bottom-line guy--"the Oxford shirt to Neil's Armani suit," as he likes to say--and Neil was the creative guy with the brilliant but impossible dreams.

Together they hatched a plan for Striped Bass, a sexy high-end seafood restaurant that catered to the expense-account crowd. They negotiated for a year with the two New Yorkers who owned the building at 1500 Walnut. "I told them I was going to need a million dollars to renovate this beautiful space," says Stein. "They had access to financing, and I said, 'Borrow an extra million for Neil Stein.'" Their response: Who is Neil Stein?

"So I went to Herb Lipson at Philadelphia magazine, who was my friend, and said it would really help me out if you wrote a positive story about Neil Stein and Philadelphia--and he did. And that bounced me back to New York. 'Here's who I am, right here in Philadelphia magazine.' We finally got the money we needed from the guys and had a few bucks of our own."

With the help of Meg Rodgers, who has designed the interiors for Stein's restaurants since his days at Marabella's, Striped Bass came to resemble a scene out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic: dramatic, bronze-framed two-story windows and grand marble pillars topped with Moorish capitals that towered up to a gorgeous coffered wood ceiling. The menu prices were pretty jaw-dropping, too.

"Neil understood that diners sit in the same seat for two to three hours staring at the same view and picking it apart," says Marnie Old, who started out as Striped Bass' sommelier before becoming executive beverage director for all of Stein's restaurants from '96 to 2001. "So the interiors had to hold up to that level of scrutiny and still deliver the 'wow' factor."

"His eye for detail is extraordinary," says a former manager. "He can pick out china patterns better than any bride."

"We were scared to death. Anybody in their right mind would have been," says Wolf. "But she looked beautiful and she heated up right away." In 1994 Striped Bass was named Best New Restaurant of the Year by Esquire and was granted Hot New Restaurant status by Bon App�tit. Dovetailing with the flush economy of the go-go '90s, the opening of the Convention Center and the other assorted financial miracles that Ed Rendell was working downtown, Striped Bass quickly exceeded the $4 million annual gross needed to turn a profit.

But by 1997 Stein and Wolf's competing management styles no longer simply contrasted. They clashed, and the relationship began to fray.

"Neil didn't have a sense of the cost of things--like the $9 martini glasses that break every nine seconds," says Wolf. "I came in the morning and Neil closed. I was married. I didn't need to hang out in the bar and eat in the restaurant every night. Neil probably had a bottle of water in his refrigerator."

It is said that there was a race on to see who could raise the money first to buy the other out. One day Stein handed Wolf a check for $800,000, effectively making Striped Bass his and his alone.

Most people you talk to--people who have partnered with Stein or worked for him, either in the front office, down on the serving floor or back in the kitchen--will tell you this was the beginning of his downfall. There was no longer adult supervision, no one to square Stein's visions of grandeur with bottom-line realities, no one to remind him that there are only 100 pennies in a dollar.

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