We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
Imagine a gorgeous day around Rittenhouse Square. The park is hopping. Anchoring the scene, and providing the bulk of the energy that pulses through it, are the restaurants lining 18th Street. Patrons saturate the sidewalk next to wide open windows, drinking and eating and reading and laughing.
Neil Stein created that.
A veteran restaurateur, Stein already had the Philly restaurant world under his thrall (thanks in part to glitzy Striped Bass, now Butcher & Singer) in April 1998 when he turned a shuttered wine shop just south of 18th and Walnut into a bistro. He decided that the best way to make the concept work in the small space was to fling open the windows and set up tables along the sidewalk.
Outdoor seating was unheard of in Philly at the time, so Stein had to fight his way through the city bureaucracy.
It wasn’t just the streetside tables that caught people’s attention, though they were a huge draw. There was also the Rouge burger. Opening chef Peter Dunmire’s 12-ounce, gruyère-topped patty caught the attention of one national publication after another, and helped boost the restaurant’s profile.
Behind the scenes, though, things weren’t as sanguine. Stein got caught up in a financial vortex of expensive rents (including a reported $45,000 a month for Avenue B, which opened briefly across from the yet-to-be-completed Kimmel Center) combined with expensive personal habits and shifty accounting. In 2003, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for his restaurants, and in 2006, served 10 months in prison for tax evasion.
Luckily for fans of Rouge, Stein had a daughter and a son-in-law willing to step in. By 2006, Maggie and Rob Wasserman had officially bought out Stein and his former partners, and assumed full ownership of the jewel-box bistro. After successfully resuscitating Rouge, the Wassermans branched out, opening burger spot 500° at 15th and Sansom, launching a restaurant in Ardmore’s Suburban Square (it’s currently being reconceptualized) and starting the Philadelphia Burger Brawl, a yearly fundraiser for Philadelphia elementary schools.
Just after he finished a day-long planning meeting for the fifth annual Burger Brawl, Rob Wasserman took a seat facing a plush banquette in the back corner of his bistro. Nursing a hot cup of coffee, he recounted how falling in love got him entangled in the restaurant business, why he considers that his good fortune, how he plans to help Philly school kids learn to read, and that one time he helped Harrison Ford escape out the back door of Rouge.
When did you first meet your wife Maggie, Neil Stein’s daughter?
It was really like a fairy tale. It was around 1999, and I had just gotten back from living overseas. I was at Striped Bass for Mother’s Day, at Neil’s table. In walks this beautiful woman, and she comes over and gives him a big kiss and a hug. She’s introduced as his daughter. As we’re all chitchatting, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her, and vice versa. She had to run off to go be with her mom, and after she left, I asked Neil, “Would it be ok if I ask your daughter out?”
I’ll never forget this; he always wore these cool shades, and he pulls them down a little bit, looks at me with his ice blue eyes and says, “I don’t want to know anything about it.”
How did you know Neil?
Through my sister, who was close with him at the time. Then I bumped into Maggie again, at Rouge. I was with one of my guy friends, and we were just leaving as she arrived. We shook hands, but our handshake lasted a little too long...
I walked outside and said to my friend, “You know what, I’m going to marry her.”
And you did! When was that?
We got married in 2002. I was working for my family’s importing and exporting business, and we lived overseas in Hong Kong. But around 2003 or 2004, things went south with Neil and we came back to Philadelphia. My wife had already gotten involved a little bit with Rouge, so I was splitting my time between that and my family’s business. But there were a lot of responsibilities that had to be taken care of at the restaurant at that point, so I kept spending more and more time here.
I’d be at my regular job from 9 to 5, then be here from 5 o’clock to midnight, trying to figure it all out. And when I say I didn’t know anything about restaurants — I knew nothing about restaurants. I literally went out and bought the book Restaurants for Dummies. I had no clue. I had always enjoyed eating out, and thankfully I was a businessman, so I understood numbers, but it wasn’t what I was used to thinking about.
As it turned out, it was something I had to do, with my wife, and we did it. We were able to work out of all the nonsense that had previously occurred. I think things happen for a reason; it’s been a really positive experience.
When did you officially take over?
In 2006. We were able to buy out all the partners, including Neil, and deal with all the taxes. The restaurant business comes down to the numbers — it’s all pennies and dimes and nickels — so even though my family’s business was a very different industry, I was able to understand it.
Right after you took over there was something of a recession; did that affect you?
In 2008? Honestly, knock on wood, we were very lucky during that time. The restaurant is small and intimate and part of the fabric of Philadelphia. We have a lot of regulars. One difference I did see was that my credit-card receipts went down, and cash receipts increased.
Were you around when Rouge first opened?
Yes, and listen, Neil was incredible with what he created here. He was the first to have the outdoor seating component — and they fought him tooth and nail over it. It was amazing, just a different mentality. Now, I think at last count, more than 1,000 restaurants in Philadelphia have outdoor seating.
Has the neighborhood around Rittenhouse Square changed?
Absolutely. It’s had its ups and downs, its cycles. The mayors from Ed Rendell onward had an extremely positive impact. They realized this is a jewel of Philadelphia, one of our premier parks. Working with the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, they did an incredible job to turn the area around. There’s no longer homeless people sleeping on the benches, and they made the park more kid-friendly. The trend started in the late '90s and picked up steam in the next decade.
What about the restaurants, where there’s been a shift off of Walnut onto 18th Street?
On Rittenhouse Row, on Walnut, in the early '90s you had your bastions of the restaurant industry, with Georges Perrier and Neil Stein and a multitude of others. But now... I think it’s just part of the cycle of real estate and economics. With the economy getting better, real estate costs more and it prices out the restaurants.
So now you see things like the 13th Street corridor, which is extremely hot, and you have us, on 18th Street. It’s cool to see the evolution.
When and why did you open 500°?
It opened almost five years ago, in 2010. At the Rittenhouse Row festival the year before, I had decided to serve the Rouge burger as a slider, and the line was crazy. It wrapped around the corner to get to our booth. My good friend Dana Bank, who had TownHome [a boutique], came up to me yelling that people couldn’t get to her booth, because our line was blocking it. My friend Steve Gartner, who’s in real estate, saw that and was like, “You gotta open a burger joint!” So that’s kind of how the idea started.
Has 500° seen its ups and downs?
Certainly, like anything else. The difference with a burger place, versus a restaurant like Rouge, is it’s all cost of goods. With the price of meat fluctuating dramatically, you have to be very careful. The positive thing is, I think we got in early with the burger craze in Philadelphia. Although I always say, there’s never enough; I like to see other people come into play and see what the competition has to offer. It’s fun.
There are a lot of burger places now. But that’s also true for restaurants in general. Are there too many restaurants in Philly?
You can’t put a moratorium on things. Everyone has their cycle. Either [a restaurateur] is going to be able to step up and get creative, or you’ll get stale and fall to the wayside. I think the kinetic energy of the restaurant industry is very important here — it fuels a lot of business. Downtown is growing dramatically, and I think restaurants are a big part of it, part of the sexiness of living downtown.
Do you live in the city?
We used to, but we actually just moved to the 'burbs a year ago. We have three kids now, and we were just bursting at the seams.
You also opened a restaurant in the suburbs [The Saint James in Ardmore], which is now closed so you can reconceptualize it into something “family-friendly.” Why did you open it originally, and why are you changing it?
I grew up a little bit in Lower Merion, so I love that area; it was somewhere I’d always thought of doing something. So when the opportunity arose, I jumped on board. The new ownership that took over Suburban Square in the mid-2000s were really trying to get new people in there. And it’s a phenomenal location [next to the train station].
But it wasn’t until I actually moved my family out there [to the Penn Valley area] that I just really realized what everybody was looking for. The restaurant had already been around for a year, but I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to say, hey, we can just do a restart.
[Opening partner] chef Michael Schulson is no longer involved?
He’s no longer involved. He was a good friend of mine. He has plenty of other projects, and honestly, we’re still really good friends, so it all worked out. I’m very excited about what’s coming to Ardmore.
Back to Rouge, have you made changes here since you and Maggie took over in 2006?
It’s funny, right after that, around 2007, our landlords came to us with the opportunity of expansion. Of going upstairs, blowing it out — it would have been grandioso, to say the least. At the last minute, I said, you know what, this place is such a gem, a diamond, why would I want to go and mess with it? To me, this place is timeless. It wouldn’t be fair to Rouge to change it.
What about the menu, has that changed
Not too much. Our chef, Sam Noh, has worked here around four years, and when he took over as head chef two years ago, he added a little more Asian influence to the menu. Funnily enough, that circles back to where it once was — it was always supposed to be a bistro with an Asian influence. But then the menu took on a heavier, French influence. Now, it’s coming back to Asian. We serve a really phenomenal pho.
But you haven’t changed the famous burger?
No way. Peter Dunmire created that, he was the first executive chef of Rouge. He’s an awesome guy, and I don’t know if he regrets having that behemoth of a burger be his legacy, or is honored. You could go both ways with something of that nature.
What inspired you to start the Philadelphia Burger Brawl?
It was inspired by my son. We were living in Queen Village, and my son was going to Meredith Elementary School. At parents night, they were talking about things they needed, that they wanted to have charity events to raise funds. Maggie looked at me and said, “We have to do something.”
So I thought, why not do something with burgers. The first year we held the event on the school grounds, which... We were the first outside group to ever hold an event on school grounds in Philadelphia, so you can imagine the red tape. But it worked. We had around 15 restaurants and 400 people showed up. We raised around $15,000, which was great. I couldn’t believe people had actually showed up.
What made you decide to do it again the following year?
We had wanted to build a computer lab for the school, and $15,000 wasn’t enough. So we said, let’s do it again next year and see if we can lock in the money. In 2012, we moved it to the parking lot next to the Fleisher Art Memorial, so we could have liquor because we weren’t on school grounds. That year we had around 20 restaurants and 600 people, and we raised $30,000.
Now we were getting somewhere. The school was able to build the computer lab. But I said, listen, I think we’re onto something. Let’s not stop, but let’s expand the focus beyond Meredith to the full city elementary school system. We put out an R5, which is basically asking for quotes of what the schools really needed money for. The replies were saddening and heartening at the same time.
So you held the event again?
Right. The third year we raised $60,000, and we were able to help two schools. It was at Fleisher parking lot, and with 1,000 people, we were bursting at the seams. So last year, in 2014, Xfinity Live invited us down, and we had 50 restaurants with close to 3,000 people there. We raised $160,000.
It was crazy; more than we were expecting. This year we’ve got it figured out better and we’re actually going bigger, a larger footprint. We’re hoping for around 5,000 people, which should allow us to raise close to $300,000.
That’s a lot of money! What are you doing with the funds?
We’ve always been focused on helping school get technology, but the worst thing about technology is as soon as you purchase it, it’s outdated. So we are trying something more long-lasting. We’ve partnered with the AIM Academy in Manayunk. It’s a private school that has a different way of teaching literacy, one that works very well and also captures special needs students.
What we’re doing is implementing their model into two public schools, from kindergarten through third grade. Using iPads and other technologies, the new program should help them get closer to 100% literacy by fifth grade. Hopefully the model will allow a lot more children to go on and succeed in life. So it’s pretty cool, and we’ve gotten a lot of support, from the school district, AIM and other supporters.
Did you form a separate nonprofit to handle all this?
We are lucky enough to use the Philadelphia Children's First fund, the largest nonprofit in Philadelphia focused on the school district. So all I have to do is flip burgers. If you think about it, me falling into the restaurant business and having this opportunity with Rouge, it really ended up giving me the opportunity to give back to Philadelphia. That, to me, makes all the trials and tribulations worthwhile.
On a lighter note, do you have any fun stories of when celebrities have visited Rouge?
I’m one to think everyone needs their privacy, so if celebrities honor and respect us enough to come to our restaurants, I don’t like to drop names. But there is one funny story that happened in 2012. Harrison Ford was in town filming. He’s probably one of my favorite idols from growing up.
He called the restaurant and said, “This is Mr. Ford, I’d like to come in for dinner.” So they called me and told me, “Hey, Harrison Ford is coming.”
He made his own reservation?
Yes! Which I thought was really cool. We took bets, is it going to be just someone named Harrison Ford, or the Harrison Ford. Sure enough, it was him. He came in, sat down in the back corner. He was reading a book, by himself, I guess it was just one of those days where he had a little time. As he sat there, the buzz factor started elevating, to the point where people on the periphery of Rouge, started to show up. I don’t think he realized what was happening, all the commotion outside.
So I went up to him and introduced myself as the owner, and told him that we do have a back door, so if he was interested, I could take him out that way. Later, when he was finished, he sent a server to get me and said, “Would you do me that favor?” So we walk back, through the kitchen — of course, the kitchen comes to a standstill. He was really nice, waved and said hello. Then I walked him out the back door and pointed him toward 17th Street. No one was there, no crowds, so he thanked me and went on his way.
Walking back to the restaurant, I pulled out my phone and called Maggie. I go, “You’re not going to believe this. I just helped Indiana Jones escape!”
205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to late Monday to Friday; 10 a.m. to late Saturday to Sunday