On January 9th, chef Jose Garces reopened the Old Original Bookbinder’s at Second and Walnut Street under the new moniker The Olde Bar. Closed since 2009 after the former owners declared bankruptcy, the building has been sitting dormant ever since. The new restaurant, a reworking of the classic “oyster saloon” that once called the space home, is bound to give this storied Philadelphia institution a new lease on what became in later years quite the beleaguered life.
A Briny Beginning
Dutch immigrant Samuel Bookbinder opened an oyster saloon at 5th and South Streets in 1893 and five years later moved his popular eatery to 125 Walnut Street. There he plated up all manners of seafood, getting his menu fresh off the ships docked along Philadelphia’s central Delaware waterfront. Shad, terrapin, and oysters were Bookbinder’s favorite meals, and portions were generous enough to satisfy his salty crowd, which ranged from storekeepers and stockbrokers to sailors, sea captains, and stevedores.
Decades later, an inheritor of the Old City Bookbinder’s location bequeathed the aging building to the Jewish Federated Charities, which eventually sold it to John M. Taxin, a local produce business owner who had an affinity for the restaurant, having enjoyed many midday meals there. He remodeled the restaurant and renamed it Old Original Bookbinder’s in 1949, growing the eatery in both size and reputation. The Second and Walnut location would eventually include three bars, seven dining rooms, and seating for 800.
All That and a Shrimp Cocktail
“Bookie’s,” as it was affectionately called, became a mecca for celebrities, tourists, and the clubby crowd of Philadelphians who went there for long, boozy lunches, birthdays, and anniversaries. During the restaurant’s zenith in the 1950s and 60s (and into the 70s), waiters scurried through paneled rooms adorned with ship models, taxidermied game fish, and photos of the rich and famous. Diamond Jim Brady, Howard Cosell, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Gregory Peck, Julius Erving, and John Wayne always visited Bookie’s when they were in town. When you dined at Bookbinder’s there was always a chance that you would be served at a table once occupied by Babe Ruth or Tennessee Williams, Teddy Roosevelt, Al Jolson, or Elizabeth Taylor. Frank Sinatra routinely stopped by the restaurant whenever in Philadelphia, and even Madonna is said to have dined there. The White House was no stranger either. Legend has it, one day in 1972 the presidential helicopter landed in a dirt-topped parking lot across Walnut Street. To the astonishment of regular patrons, President Richard Nixon had flown up from Washington for a lunch date with Mayor Frank Rizzo.
John Taxin and his son Albert ran the restaurant until the 1980s. Taxin’s grandson, John, soon took over, but was forced to close in 2001 due to financial and operational difficulties, including a series of fires.
Four years later the restaurant reopened under the same management after substantial renovations and a reduction in square footage, giving way to a new condominium, The Moravian, which was attached in the rear–half of residential development took over part of the restaurant complex, while the other half was built from the ground up.
Despite the addition of The Moravian, the overhauled restaurant failed to bring in business and went bankrupt, closing for good in 2009. With Bookie’s furnishings and decor still in tact, the set of buildings at 121–135 Walnut Street have sat vacant for over five years.
A Family Affair
To confuse matters, the Bookbinder family had not been associated with the Old City location since giving up the building in 1935. It was that year that two of Samuel Bookbinder’s grandsons opened a seafood restaurant at 215 South 15th Street. They set up shop in a former police precinct building–in the French Second Empire style–dating back to 1890. Bookbinder’s Seafood House became famous for its snapper soup, Maine lobster, and cheesecake. In the back was a “Wall of Fame” on which hung photos of celebrity guests who posed for pictures with Bookbinder family members.
After nearly 70 years on 15th Street, Bookbinder’s Seafood House on 15th Street fell into disrepair and closed. Tax problems and family squabbles did in the restaurant in 2003. Applebee’s moved in soon after.
“His Name Is My Name Too.”
For decades, there was much confusion about the Bookbinder situation in Philadelphia. When either Bookbinder’s would get a reservation for a large group, invariably, half the party would end up at the other restaurant across town. The Walnut street restaurant added “Old Original” to its name to distinguish itself from the uptown location operated by the Bookbinder family, but doing so didn’t necessarily remedy the situation. As expected, a not-so-friendly, but civil, rivalry developed between the two establishments.
To add to the confusion, there is another Old Original Bookbinder’s location in Richmond, Virginia, which the Taxin family still operates today. In the early 1970s, the Taxins even created a foods division that sold traditional Bookbinder’s favorites packaged for supermarket sales. Silver Spring Gardens, Inc., acquired Bookbinder’s Foods in 1999 and has retained the words “Philadelphia’s World Famous” as part of its logo. Based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the company sells a full line of canned seafood soups, condiments and sauces.
Something Borrowed, Something Bookbinder’s
It’s hard to find a Philadelphia native over forty who doesn’t have a cherished Bookbinder’s memory. The Old Original Bookbinder’s at 125 Walnut Street was not only a destination for visiting dignitaries, heads of state, professional athletes and Hollywood stars, but a place of pride for locals. This is what makes the reopening of the old eatery so exciting for old patrons like me. With a heavy nod to the legacy of the Old Original Bookbinder’s, the newly opened The Olde Bar offers fresh seafood, a raw bar, and a quirky, old world cocktail menu. Garces has reanimated the restaurant with the help of John Taxin’s grandson, keeping much of the old nautical decorum and wall hangings the same. The name may be different, but the colorful 150 years old Bookbinder’s legacy is sticking around.