Philadelphia-based Stephen Starr is equal parts theatrical producer and restaurateur. That’s no surprise considering that he opened his first business in the mid ‘70s, when he was only 21, a diner and comedy club called Grandmom Minnie's. He then went on to open a cabaret, a concert venue and a disco. Starr then founded The Concert Company, which brought large-scale stadium acts to Philadelphia. He sold that company in 1990 with the idea of going into theatrical and film production.
Instead he founded Starr Restaurants, opening his next restaurant, Continental Restaurant & Martini Bar, in Philadelphia. To his way of thinking, dining out isn’t that far removed from attending a play or concert, “Restaurants and films must have all the same elements: the right cast, art direction, lighting. It’s about the theater of going out.”
It’s a philosophy that has served him well. Starr now has 20 restaurants in Philadelphia, running the gamut of cuisine and concepts; Barclay (prime steakhouse), Buddakan (modern Asian), The Dandelion (English pub), Fette Sau (BBQ), Jones (American comfort food), Parc French bistro, El Rey (traditional Mexican) and El Vez, serving modern Mexican fare.
A strong supporter of Dining Out for Life, he also oversees restaurants in New York, New Jersey and here in South Florida. In addition to two Bal Harbour and one Miami spot, he has two restaurants in the Fort Lauderdale W Hotel, Steak 954 and the newly opened outpost of his popular Philadelphia and New York City restaurants, El Vez.
El Vez showcases classic Mexican fare with an emphasis on Baja-style cooking that celebrates fresh seafood. Its open-air dining room spills out onto an expansive patio overlooking A1A. Large tables, cut from slabs of wood are surrounded by bar stools, making it a perfect gathering spot for large parties. Smaller tables line the perimeter, offering space for intimate dinners and smaller gatherings. Although you could grab a quick bite here, the atmosphere is so inviting that you’ll want to settle in for a relaxing evening, and that’s not a problem; the staff is more than happy to accommodate you. There’s no feeling of being rushed out to clear a table, the servers and staff act like the best dinner party hosts.
None of this would matter if the food wasn’t good and it’s not only good, it’s terrific! Starter options include three different guacamole recipes; Classic (with cilantro, lime, onion, serrano chilies and tomato), Tito Santana (with chunks of mango, red pepper and jicama with plenty of heat provided by habanero and serrano chilies), or Verde (with mixed herbs and Meyer lemon zest and a subtle smokiness provided by poblanos). The ceviche section of the menu provides not only traditional versions of the titular dish, shrimp and seafood cocktails, but also tostadas showcasing the marinated seafood served atop large tortilla chips. Tuna tostadas dishes up five portions swathed with chipotle mayo and crispy onions. Each chip provides 2-3 bites, so the dish is easily shared. Other starter selections include nachos, quesadillas and queso fundido, Mexico’s version of fondue.
The menu offers up a variety of taco platters; seafood options include breaded mahi, grilled shrimp or snapper. Carnivores can enjoy carnitas, chicken, steak or lamb. The mahi and lamb offer up two plump tacos, while the remaining options deliver three, all good-sized portions. Enchilada platters include a choice of chicken, black bean or seafood (with shrimp and King crab). If you want to make your meal more substantial order a side dish. Among the offerins are skillet potatoes, which showcase tender, creamy Yukon Golds in a Chihuahua cream sauce. Fried shallots and a touch of chipotle provide the perfect finish for the dish. Other side options, all large enough for the table to share, include; plantains con queso, roasted seasonal vegetables, black beans and rice, refried black beans and an ear of grilled corn served elote-style.
If you’d prefer something a little more elaborate as an entree. Try the Tacos al Carbon, prepared for two, the build your own taco platter offers a choice of chicken, steak or shrimp with grilled vegetables. Citrus-marinated grilled chicken, whole fried yellowtail snapper or branzino and a chipotle-rubbed flat iron steak are other entrée possibilities.
It would be easy to over-do it at El Vez, but you’ll want to save room for dessert. The selection isn’t vast, but each is a delight. My favorite is the El Vez sundae; with vanilla bean ice cream, chili-chocolate brownie pieces, crunchy peanuts and caramel. Churros arrive freshly made and crispy from a sprinkling of sugar, with dulce de leche and spicy hot chocolate sauces for dipping. What would a Mexican meal be without some Margaritas? El Vez has a wide array of choices from the traditional to exotic (burnt grapefruit!). There is an equally abundant selection of tequilas and Mexican beers to sample.
You’d expect a restaurant in an ocean-front W Hotel to be pricey and that’s what makes El Vez even better. You can easily get way with dinner for two for less than $25 a person, without drinks. As an added bonus, valet parking is only $5 with validation. With all that going for El Vez, you’ve got no excuse not to make a run for the border (technically, AIA is the Eastern border of the U.S.).
Steve Starr’s other South Florida Restaurants include:
9700 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
9700 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
49 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. Fort Lauderdale