By Andrew Crowley
Neil Stein, the restaurateur who electrified and revolutionized the Philadelphia dining scene, died on Oct. 25 of natural causes in his Center City apartment. He was 77.
Stein’s larger-than-life personality and biography was the stuff of the silver screen: a meteoric rise and fall fueled by ambition and substance abuse, as well as memorable characters like the late Stanley Green. The gregarious restaurateur/jet-setter turned public relations man was paid by Stein to hold court at Rouge and tell guests stories about his encounters with celebrities, according to a 2015 piece on Green in the Chestnut Hill Local.
Stein’s restaurant empire spanned decades and included establishments like the Fish Market, Marabella’s Rock Lobster, Striped Bass and Rouge. At Rouge, Stein brought sidewalk dining to Rittenhouse Square, something he had to fight against the city to get. Rock Lobster was a crucial part of the revitalization of Delaware Avenue.
His first venture into the business was Mimi Says, a supper club in Wyncote that offered entertainment on a nightly basis beginning at 8 p.m. That first venture was named after his oldest daughter, Mimi.
“People come to Mimi Says because they want unusual food and are willing to pay for it,” Stein said in a 1970 Jewish Exponent article. Rather than drive 90 miles to New York, they come to Mimi Says and, in reality, save money because my prices are a lot cheaper than any supper club in New York.”
At the beginning of the 2000s, his culinary empire began to crumble when a bank and the Internal Revenue Service had questions about his financial situation. He was on the hook for $4.5 million to the IRS and was also charged with mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud.
Stein owned four restaurants at the beginning of 2003: Avenue B, Striped Bass, Rouge and Bleu, according to a 2004 Philadelphia Business Journal article. That same year, he filed for bankruptcy reorganization. Avenue B and Striped Bass closed, with the latter sold to Stephen Starr, another major mover and shaker in the local food world.
The state wanted its cut, as did the city, which also was seeking unpaid liquor taxes, to say nothing of the food suppliers and vendors. There were also the employees of Stein’s Avenue B who were waiting on back pay, tips and unemployment compensation.
In 2003 Stein had this to say about the situation with the Avenue B employees: “Yeah, I feel terrible that Avenue B employees couldn’t get their last paycheck,” he told Philadelphia Weekly. “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.”
In that same article, Stein cited Avenue B as the source of his financial woes. That dining establishment was intended to take advantage of the hungry crowds attending events at the then-newly opened Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
During this time, Stein went to rehab at the Caron Foundation to reign in his drinking and drug problems. That led to him missing bankruptcy hearings.
Stein was arrested for tax evasion in September 2004 and plead guilty, serving 10 months in prison starting in 2006. In a 2006 interview, he called his time incarcerated “the experience of a lifetime.”
After his release in January 2007, things were quiet for Stein, but four years later he was making plans for a comeback in the restaurant business. In a 2011 article, he spoke of plans to open a restaurant at 1801 JFK Blvd. that never came to be.
Family members followed his footsteps into the restaurant business, including son-in-law Rob and daughter Maggie Wasserman, the current owners of Rouge, the last remaining restaurant of Stein’s empire. His sister, Sheryl Borish, is the owner of the Marathon Grill chain.
Stein is survived by daughters Mimi Milou and Maggie Wasserman and sons Eric and Perry Milou, as well as nine grandchildren and his sister Sheryl Borish.
Andrew Crowley is a freelance writer.