He's been labeled a "brilliant innovator," the "most financially conservative businessman I've ever met" and a man who creates restaurants that are "familiar and safe." He's also one of few restaurateurs from outside New York to carve out a significant chunk of the Big Apple's hospitality industry for himself. No small feat, that.
Yes, Philadelphia's Stephen Starr generates a wide spectrum of opinions, which is not surprising for a man who oversees 30 restaurants along the East Coast, including Le Diplomate, his first establishment in the District. Le Diplomate, which launched a soft opening this week, is a classic Starr restaurant: big and elegant and largely conservative in approach.
The biggest risk for Starr may have been his decision to build out the French bistro in the shell of an old dry cleaners, which cost him about $6.5 million, he said. He also plans to take the semi-bold step of offering both breakfast and lunch, which have spotty histories in Washington. (Well, he'll offer them once he hires the right staff to fill those morning and afternoon shifts; currently, Le Diplomate is offering just dinner and brunch this week, with 10 percent discounts on food through Sunday.)
True to Starr's disarming straight-shooter persona, the rock promoter-turned-restaurateur addressed these topics, and many others, in our edited Q&A below.
Tim Carman: You had been thinking about coming to Washington for a long time.
Stephen Starr: When I opened my first restaurant, the Continental, which was in 1995 and that was really successful, I came here and looked for locations to do a Continental. I always wanted to, but I never was able to figure out how to do it. One thing I like about this place, especially, is the fact that it’s its own building, a freestanding building. What troubled me in Washington was that too many things are in office buildings. I was looking for something that was either on its own or in a small-scale building.
TC: What appeals to you about a freestanding building versus a mixed-use building? I would think that some restaurateurs would like the built-in audience of a mixed-used building.
SS: Aesthetically, I like that it’s one story, that it’s our restaurant. It’s our house. When it’s in something so big or in an office, business-wise, it’s great, but it feels a little corporate. We want it a little more organic, more neighborhoody. That’s why I like Adams Morgan more aesthetically than places where there are big office buildings.
TC: So, for some reason, Washington wasn't right for you in '95?
SS: I just wasn't focused enough. It was enough that I had one, then two, restaurants in Philly. I wasn't ready spiritually to go an hour and 45 minutes away — yet. I really had only two people working for me. I couldn't handle it. Then I started doing more stuff in Philly, then New York happened. I always wanted to come to Washington. I always liked it here. I like the feeling of the city.
TC: A lot of people have looked at this location. I've heard one reason why people didn't go for it is the space's former occupant, the dry cleaners. Soil abatement was apparently required. Did that scare you away at all?
SS: I heard that, too. I think that maybe people got scared from actually exploring it. It scared me, but then we hired experts to look at it, and there was some [contamination]. We remediated it. It’s all gone. It’s fine.
TC: It probably took someone with your wherewithal to do that. Some smaller restaurateurs probably couldn't afford that.
SS: I’d like to go along with that, except to do a restaurant in this space, which was literally a shell -- that, in and of itself, was a fortune. So, I think that the additional $30,000 or $40,000 it cost to get rid of whatever we had to get rid of wasn't that big a deal when you had to spend at least a couple million. This was just four walls and a dirt floor. There wasn't much here.
TC: What made you want to come to 14th Street?
SS: It was an accident. I used to come here every once in a while with real estate agents who wanted to show me things. I saw a couple of things I didn't like. Again, in big office buildings. Then I see this boarded-up building, this building. This is like four years ago. I said, 'That’s what I want' to the real estate guy. The scale was awesome. I liked the feel. I didn't even know the neighborhood. I liked the feel of it. He said, 'Well, it’s not available,' and that was that. And then — my sense of timing may be off — a year or so later, he calls and says, ‘Remember that place that you wanted? It’s available.’ Then we did the whole negotiation.
TC: So you didn't have a bunch of number crunchers looking at this space, saying it’s going to be great because it has foot traffic and density ...
SS: No, I should. You know in those old Westerns, those things that find water? I feel like I’m like that. I just feel it. And honestly, I’m embarrassed to say that we signed this deal and afterwards figured out that lunch was going to be challenging here. But you know what? I think that I may be naive — I probably am — I think people are going to come here. I think we’re going to get them to come.
TC: Why the bistro concept? Did you check the neighborhood and see what it needed?
SS: It was another one of those feelings. As a matter of fact, I never thought that I’d come to Washington and first do a bistro. Never in my mind. It was always Buddakan or Continental back then or something new. Because in the end, I just want to do new stuff. But when I walked through this space and imagined the space, it just felt like I should do that. It felt like a brasserie, a bistro.
TC: The size of Le Diplomate, with some 250 seats inside and out, must have figured into whom you picked as chef, Adam Schop.
SS: That probably figured into who applied to be chef, too. Yeah, there are guys who feel comfortable with 60 seats, but not with this. There were bigger, sort of French-type chefs who were interested in this job. Sometimes you think they’re good when you look at their resumes, and then they do a tasting or two and it’s off. Like surprisingly off.
TC: I bet you’re not going to name names ...
SS: I can’t. Yeah, it would have been great to have a French name. In the end, it’s how good the food is.
TC: So is La Colombe from Philadelphia going to be doing the coffee service for breakfast?
SS: Yes. Breakfast to me is challenging. But Parc in Philadelphia, it’s the most magical time of the day. Read the newspaper. Play classical music, whatever. Just have some eggs, coffee, and it’s fantastic.
TC: Is Philly a breakfast town?
SS: Not really. We do maybe 80, 90 breakfasts a day. But, again, you can’t measure it in the money it brings in. That feeling you get at breakfast, you can’t measure it. People are like coming back later in the night, in the afternoon or brunch, because of that vibe at breakfast.
TC: But at some point, you do have to measure it in money.
SS: Of course, but that’s what night time’s for — for dinner.
TC: You’re seem still actively engaged in the process at your restaurants, down to the hiring process.
SS: I taste everything. I mean, I’m pounding the food. I’m pounding every tasting. I direct those guys. I can’t cook. But I direct them.
TC: So what do you focus on at this stage of your career with each restaurant?
SS: The food. Pushing the food. Pushing it to be better. Editing the chef when it’s too pedestrian or if it’s not pedestrian. In other words, an editor. I’m an editor. Some very famous chef told me, "Every chef needs an editor." Even Alain Ducasse needs an editor.
TC: How much editing have you done with Le Diplomate?
SS: It’s not that I edit every dish. Some dishes are fine, but I have something to say about every dish.
TC: Give me an example.
SS: We have a pasta dish on the menu. Our team was very reluctant to do anything that’s Italian. I said, 'Let’s do Italian. That’s fine. We can do fettuccine Alfredo.' We’re not doing it, but it’s okay. France is right next to Italy.
TC: I get the sense that you put a lot of emphasis on your intuition. There must be something behind it.
SS: I was in the music business, so it’s like an A&R guy shopping for bands. They get demo tapes. They put a song on. In 30 seconds, they know. Next. It’s not that cut-and-dried when hiring people, but it’s just a feeling. Are they articulate? Do they look excited to be here? Do they smell like liquor?
TC: So what keeps you going after 30 restaurants?
SS: I don’t know. I like doing things that are new. I’m excited to do this in Washington. New York is New York; it’s the greatest city in the world. Washington is the capital of the United States. Ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated by politics and news. I follow politics. I think it’s intriguing. To me, having an influential senator dine here is just as cool as Gwen Stefani coming in. I mean, just as cool.
TC: It’s our rock ‘n’ roll ...
SS: We really want to be here. It’s fun. It’s cool. It’s exciting to come here during this time, with this administration. It’s a great time to be here. I wish I were here two years ago.