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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Ahem. Obviously Neil Stein still has a lot of fight left in him, and he's gonna need it, too, because right now he's in a fight to the finish for his professional life, his livelihood and his legacy. "You know, they say I'm a cat who's used up all nine lives. Well I got news for you: I've got 10," he says defiantly. But the odds are not in his favor.

Nobody is willing to come out and say it publicly, but they all talk about the fall of an empire; that if Striped Bass survives--and that's a mighty big if--Stein won't be running it. And--excepting Rock Lobster--no restaurant Stein ever walked away from or was asked to leave has ever lasted long without him. "Will he get out of this? I don't see how," says a longtime associate.

"Neil is a survivor," says Meg Rodgers, the woman who designed the interiors of Striped Bass, Rouge, Bleu and Avenue B. "I think he will pull himself out of this. I want to believe that--for his sake."

Others are worried that if the news gets any worse he might do something drastic. "I'm very worried about him," says another former manager. "I love and hate the guy at the same time--and I owe him so much. But he is a very proud man and he won't stand for much more public humiliation."

Even though we're pretty sure he was trying to intimidate us with that I'm-gonna-tell-Freddy exchange, PW still thinks Philadelphia should be rooting for Neil Stein, not against him. Yeah, he's burned a lot of bridges. Yeah, he's probably fucked a lot of people over. Everybody knows that any rock star worth his salt--and make no mistake, Stein is more rock star than half the pretenders in heavy rotation on MTV--is a professional creative genius and an amateur human being.

He's such a wonderfully flamboyant character and obviously a brilliant restaurateur--albeit one in dire need of some financial oversight. But even his worst enemies will tell you he's a Philadelphia original--right up there with the Rocky Balboa and the Big Bambino. Consider for a moment just how dull--how un-fabulous--the nightlife of the city would have been in the last 30 years without him. That is Neil Stein's gift to the city: He taught us how to be fabulous.

As Neil Stein goes, so goes Philadelphia, says Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan. "If he drops out of the dining scene, it will be a huge loss," he says. "It's really a shame. I have a lot of respect for what he brought to the city and the quality of the dining scene he helped create. He always shot for excellence, and every great restaurant needs a great figurehead."

Stein puts on his game face for the media and his clientele--and he's still loved by them: the Main Line ladies who lunch, the Botoxed doyennes of the Square, the moneyed middle-aged divorced guys, the Armani wannabes and "the pretty 20-year-old girls that don't wear underwear"--they all come over to Stein's table to kiss his ring, pay their respects and show their support. But deep down he knows what he's up against.

Joe Wolf ran into his old partner one day in the Square, just before Stein went into rehab last month. The two have not been seen together in public since 1997. Stein was slumped on a bench, looking utterly defeated. Wolf went over and sat down next to him.

"They are out to get me," Stein said, shaking his head. The two just sat there in silence for a few moments. What can you say? Then Wolf stood up and just before he walked away, he turned to his old stickball teammate and said, "You'll find a way to get out of this. You always do."

Jonathan Valania (jvalania@philadelphiaweekly.com) last wrote about Richard Hayne, the president and co-founder of Urban Outfitters.

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