Our Reflections on the Legendary Creative Genius of Neil Stein.
I had an unexpected opportunity to say something at a private gathering to remember Neil on Sunday afternoon. I failed to describe my experience and relationship. I regretted not sharing more. I called my friend Ann who also spoke to the intimate crowd of friends and acquaintances to express my regret for not sharing what, from my perspective, we had all lost and what he meant to me, what his second wife and Maggie’s mother meant to me and how Neil’s passing was bringing up all of the emotions of Cindi’s passing. Ann said, but how could you have expressed it all as it is all so personal. The relationship that you have with another person is impossible to sum up in a one minute and yes it is all very personal, so I will try to do better here to elaborate on what I wrote on my personal Facebook page on Saturday morning. What I hope to share is Neil’s genius, how I was able to tap into that and share in his creativity. We truly respected, bonded, connected, spoke the same creative language and loved each other and I have never found that connection or anything like that again and probably never will.
Neil Stein was truly a creative genius. On a personal note, my career was changed forever when Neil and the Marabella’s offered me the opportunity to work on Marabella’s Locust Street around 1982. I was working on Plage Tahiti with his former wife Cindi, Maggie Ryan Wasserman’s mom, who became one of my very best friends and was a talented designer. We lost Cindi 5 years ago, and now Neil, so dear Maggie has had the foundation pulled out from under her feet.
Neil and I worked together for two decades opening nine restaurants and developing the concepts for many more. We shared a passion for creating environments, a focus on details and getting things just right. Neil’s gift to me was in showing me that what we were creating was far more than an interior or environment, we were creating an experience. I learned immediately that Neil spoke in terms of the senses. He did not use language to describe how something should look. He could tell me how it should feel, smell, sound, taste and what would linger in your memory. His genius was to allow me to fill in that blank. It was never dictated. My favorite tool to research my concepts is to watch movies to immerse myself in an experience. I could describe scenes from Casablanca or Indochine, pull images from fashion magazines or couture gowns of Givenchy and we were on our way. We would riff like an improv act with one thought bouncing off of another that most people would not be able to follow. Neil was my mentor and I was his disciple and muse.
Neil had an idea a minute, would say that he had a deal which often constituted a post it note on his desk about a call or a space that was available. I had the pleasure of working with Dana Bank as well as many talented chefs during those years as Neil knew talent! I would look at opportunities with him regularly as I never knew where the road would lead and it was always worth the ride. We traveled to NYC, DC, LA, Las Vegas, Miami, Atlantic City, Boston, and Chicago to look at what was happening around the country or to consider a project. I pushed him, and he me.
A most memorable trip was to Las Vegas to meet with the owners of a casino who wanted Neil to open a restaurant in Atlantic City. We each had a palatial two-story suite. We had an absolute blast and I felt like I was in a movie or maybe a sitcom! He had style and charm and I was a country girl in the city on the ride of my life. I did not have one ounce of his style or charm. He walked up to a blackjack table and won a couple of thousand dollars! We went everywhere and saw everything but we never did do that restaurant in Atlantic City.
Neil loved to tell stories and he loved to elaborate the stories, the cost or origin of features in the restaurants like the chairs at Rouge, the fish at Striped Bass or that I went to Paris to buy the chandelier for Rouge, but it was always a good story that people loved!
A few years ago, Steve Horn asked Neil and me to look at a project at Bethlehem SteelStacks. We drove there together and spent the day brainstorming. We met with a very impressive group of executives, the CEO of the casino and more, and it was as if we had never missed a beat. The raw space was magnificent and the concept that Steve had was fantastic but ahead of Bethlehem SteelStack’s time. Neil called after and we met to brainstorm, but in my heart, I knew it would never happen. If Neil wanted to brainstorm, his creativity and vision were unmatched. In the past few years, we would see one another in Rittenhouse Square and chat about our families and what we were each doing. I have tried to find a way to thank Neil for his trust, for what he taught me and the opportunities that he brought to me. I can only hope that I told him often enough while he was on this earth. I will miss you, Neil. XO
My heart goes out to Mimi, Perry and Eric Milou and family, Maggie and Rob Maggie Ryan Wasserman and family and his sister Sheryl Borish and family. Sending my love and affection to all who were touched by Neil and for our shared loss. Godspeed Neil.
— Meg Rodgers
My first interaction with Neil in person was the fall of 1997 when Meg asked me to attend a meeting with her for a new restaurant. I, just as anyone in Philly who read the Inquirer food section or Philly Magazine, knew of Neil as the more colorful partner of Striped Bass and former owner of the legendary Fish Market. The meeting took place at a now-defunct café in his apartment building on Rittenhouse Square early on a Saturday morning. I sat there with Meg before he arrived as she ran through her budding concept which consisted of pages ripped from magazines and a few images tagged in a book about classic Parisian cafes. Neil finally arrived taciturn and seemingly irked by the early hour we were meeting. As usual, he was wearing dark glasses inside which added to the cool cat persona he maintained. Every so often he would tilt his chin down to look out over the shades to reveal his striking blue eyes letting us know that it was partially an act. He opened up to tell stories of where he was the night before; the latest hot spot with some well-known Philadelphian. Despite the late-night exploits, he was impeccably dressed, coifed and spritzed with cologne. By this point, Meg and Neil were old friends brought together by his former wife and Meg’s close friend Cindy. They had war stories from Striped Bass, Rock Lobster and Marabella’s. I was somewhat stars truck from Neil’s larger than life persona part rock star, part rat pack. Meg was completely unphased and seemed to know exactly what he was trying to achieve. It was the meeting he and Meg were wearing the same Donald Pliner shoes, or maybe that was later for Bleu, but they were often on the same page literally and figuratively. Meg would show him a page out of Vogue that was meant to convey the colors, materials, and mood that would inspire the interior, but there was always just enough fashion model to represent the ideal patron at this yet to be a dining destination that would be just as much about good food as it was experience. He would throw out adjectives like sexy and cool to describe the combo of allure and hipness that he knew Philly needed. He was passionate about his vision in a way you don’t see post the 2008 economic downfall. As a young designer, you could get spoiled being a part of one of Neil’s creations. During the neo restaurant renaissance of the late 90’s through 2000 in Philadelphia, Neil opened Striped Bass, Rouge, Bleu, the new Fish Market and Avenue “B”. All very different with uniquely creative interiors in their own right.
— Nina Pritzker-Cohen