Every entrepreneur has ups and downs.
Few highs and lows in Philadelphia have been as public as Neil Stein's: On one hand, there are the openings of his restaurants, which helped define Philadelphia. On the other is his 10-month stay in federal prison for tax evasion, capping his empire's collapse.
"At this moment," Stein said in a recent interview, "I'm very alive and very up."
Stein, a year out of prison, is planning a comeback with a place called Cabaret in the restaurant space at the Morris House, a boutique hotel near Washington Square.
As Stein was at Fish Market (1973), Marabella's (1984), Rock Lobster (1992), Striped Bass (1994) and Rouge (1998), he's the idea man.
Not the money man.
"I still owe a few dollars," he says, although Philadelphia court records show more than $1 million in active judgments against him and his former corporations - largely from unpaid city taxes.
Cabaret's timetable may hinge on Stein's legal case with Harrisburg. Stein, whose state restitution debt exceeds $155,000, pleaded guilty to tax charges and was sentenced to 111/2 to 23 months in state prison. He has avoided jail by beginning to make restitution, his attorney Nino V. Tinari says.
At 66, Stein says he has matured. "Being picked up and being taken to prison" in March 2006 was his personal low.
Drugs, he adds, can "destroy you. . . . And I don't think driving a 911 Porsche is as important as it was 15 or 20 years ago to me. . . . I think that the things that I had then aren't that important to me. . . . I lived in an apartment that was $6,000 a month and I drove [a] $100,000 car and I went to St. Bart's every single winter for a month and spent $30,000 or $40,000 in St. Bart's. And those things aren't important to me anymore."
He lives simply in Old City and works for Rouge, which his daughter Maggie now owns.
What sold him on the Morris House was the garden, he says; the project's estimated $2 million budget includes a glass dome that would extend the existing dining room outdoors, where tables would be set up.
The deal arose last summer when Stein encountered real estate developer Lindsay Ratkovich, a bright young University of Pennsylvania graduate, on the street. "Her dad is Wayne Ratkovich, a developer in L.A., and we went from there," Stein says.
"With a combination of his talent and our location, it can't miss," says Michael DiPaolo, a partner in the Morris House.
"It's real important to put excitement into restaurants today," Stein says. "You know, people don't want to go to boring environments. . . . Of course, people like to dine on good food, but they like excitement at the same time."
The first of a two-part interview with Neil Stein will be posted after 1 p.m. today on "Philadelphia Business Today" on Philly.com.