“Everybody Went to Bookie’s”
Bookbinder's was born in 1893, a family-run tavern that over the next century grew into a sprawling 54,000-square-foot structure that took up most of Walnut Street between Front and 2nd. The place passed out of the hands of the Bookbinder family in the early 1940s when John M. Taxin, a produce merchant, bought it. Under Taxin, and later his son Albert, it became a martini-soaked mecca for celebrities, tourists, and a clubby crowd of Philadelphians who went there for long, boozy lunches, birthdays and anniversaries. The restaurant was officially known as “Old Original Bookbinder's” because in 1935, in a quintessentially Philly move, a rogue branch of the Bookbinder family boldly launched a rival fish restaurant, Bookbinders Seafood House, on 15th Street (thereby confusing generations of locals and tourists, and causing countless dining foul-ups when various parties arrived at diverse locations).
Victims of changing tastes, and decimated by the emergence of other power restaurants during the '90s (think Striped Bass and the Palm), both Bookbinders were recently shuttered. But with the Taxin family readying a smaller, more modern version of Bookie's, set in its old location in Old City, we've compiled an oral history of the great days (and nights) spent there. Unless otherwise indicated, when we refer to Bookbinder's, we're talking about the Old Original — remember, that's the one at 125 Walnut Street.
The 1940s through 1960s
John E. Taxin, a.k.a. “young John Taxin,” and the most recent family member to manage the restaurant: There was no Atlantic City when my grandfather, John M. Taxin, bought the restaurant in the 1940s. But big acts came to the Latin Casino on Walnut Street, and they all came to the restaurant. We had a PR man named Arnold Stark, like a Damon Runyon character, he was a wizard. When Frank Sinatra was in town, Arnold would see that he got the LA. Times delivered to his hotel room every day. He'd deliver a cheesecake to the Oval Office for inaugurations.
Bookbinder's was so cavernous that locals preferred eating at the big round tables ringed by captain's chairs in the more intimate Presidents Room, a paneled lounge with a massive bar salvaged by the Taxins from an old Nevada saloon. Tourists got seated in the big dining room, which comfortably held 200 — but John and Jean Taxin tried to visit every table, whether the diners were one-off visitors or three-times-a-week regulars. There was also a coatroom and a “holding bar” as you entered the restaurant.
Gus De Pasquale, waiter for 52 years: I was 14 when I started as a busboy. When we first started, it was all girls working as waitresses, because of the war. In the late '40s, Jack Klugman waited tables with me — Quincy! Abbott and Costello came in around that time, too. Which was the fat one? Costello? He used to chase Frances, one of the waitresses, around the dining room. She was a little heavyset, and he liked to pinch her. And they'd insult the people at the next table.
Arthur Makadon, chairman, Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll: I grew up with Albert Taxin, and I always went to Bookbinder's as a child on Sunday nights. My family would drive in, and it was a big deal. I always ordered the same two things, veal parmesan and strawberry shortcake. In those days, there were no other restaurants. It was that, Frankie Bradley's, and Arthur's steakhouse on Walnut Street. You always wore ties, and women got dressed up.
Elliott Curson, advertising executive: There were only a couple of places to eat back then — the Hunt Room in the Bellevue, and the Vesper Club. Bookbinder's was two restaurants, really, one for Philadelphians and one for everyone else. If you walked into the restaurant and saw there were empty seats in the dining room but the bar was filled, you'd say, “Well, there's nowhere to sit.” And you'd leave. It's like the Palm now, where you have to sit on the left. The Taxins were part of the fun, having Albert and his father come to the table and kid around with you. They had a coffeepot out front for the drivers waiting outside. I'd always get the bluefish, and they had great salads and martinis. It was expensive, but it was good.
Neil Stein, restaurateur: It was the first restaurant here to have a “big pound,” a huge wooden tank that could house 500 lobsters. The aroma was just fantastic. John Taxin and his cronies sat at the same round table in the bar every day at lunch and smoked cigars. And if you weren't there, your seat was empty.
Sharon Pinkenson, executive director, Greater Philadelphia Film Office: When I was a kid, I remember going there with my whole family and being fascinated by the decor, and the photos and the lobster tanks. I felt like I was in a castle, and the women would always get dressed up and be very glamorous.
Neil Stein: John Taxin used to go to the market himself to buy produce at 4 a.m. every day. They had four guys behind the raw bar shucking clams, taking the lobsters out of the pound and steaming them, right there. They also had a doorman — this was very unusual in a restaurant, and really nice. John would invite all the cabbies in at night for coffee and doughnuts, too.
Thanks to Arnold Stark's promiscuous cheesecake volleys, and John Taxin sending a car and driver to notable guests' hotels, by the early 1950s, celebrity sightings became a regular part of Bookbinder's lore.
Gus De Pasquale: Elizabeth Taylor came in many times when she was married to Eddie Fisher. She sat at Table 33 in the bar, and she'd eat lobster. She came in one time in a dress cut down to there, and Eddie Fisher would go like this to try to cover her up. [makes motion of pulling a dress neckline up and together] Then she'd put it back. [laughs]
Anthony Pantalone, maître d' and employee for 39 years: Elizabeth Taylor was very pretty. Very approachable. And her earrings were down to there. Eddie Fisher? He was aloof.
Mike Douglas's show was filmed downtown then, so he'd be done around two in the afternoon, and he had his corner booth in the big room. He'd always have a mild fish, like swordfish or sea bass. He'd bring Liberace sometimes — oh, my, Liberace was a good guest, very friendly. Frank Sinatra was good friends with Albert.
The most impressive man I ever saw was Gregory Peck, an elegant man. He came in three times. John Wayne was loud, friendly, he patted everyone on the back. Big drinker, John Wayne.
Dennis Cogan, attorney: During his presidency, jfk was in town for the Army-Navy game, and he went to Bookbinder's and had their bouillabaisse. He loved it so much that he asked Mr. Taxin for the recipe. Mr. Taxin said, “I'm sorry, Mr. President, but we can't give out the recipe. But I'll fly the soup down to the White House whenever you want.”
Frank Rizzo Jr., Philadelphia City Council member: When my dad was at Bookbinder's, he'd always bring my mother home a slice of strawberry shortcake. Upstairs, they had great parties, you'd walk up those old, rickety wooden steps, the planks moved and shifted.
Ralph Roberts, chairman, Comcast Corporation: It was marvelous. My wife liked the restaurant, and she loves lobster. The two places to go were the Warwick and Bookbinder's. The other Bookbinders on 15th Street was more convenient; I think that was the original family? It created confusion.
Alan Halpern, former editor of Philadelphia magazine: If you asked a cabdriver “Take me to Bookbinder's,” he'd invariably take you to the one that was farthest away.
The 1970s and 1980s
These were the heady days of big hair, strong drinks, coke-fueled nights and five-pound lobsters. Disco and Reaganomics only made Bookie's more popular. Albert Taxin, the second generation, was now running the restaurant. With his pretty, bubbly young wife Doris, he continued the tradition of glad-handing and table-hopping, and was soon as beloved as his father.
John Taxin: My earliest memories are of being a little kid in the restaurant, and when you're a kid, things look even bigger. It wasn't your normal restaurant, it was 54,000 square feet — Striped Bass is about 6,000, so we were humongous. We had three full-time electricians, a full-time carpenter and a full-time painter — it was a city unto itself.
My grandfather still came in every day, and my father and Jack Bronstein, who was a cousin, ran the place. My father had a way, even if something bad was happening, of going on the floor and smiling and saying “Hi, how are you doing?”
I still remember getting dressed up to meet President Nixon when he came in; they landed his helicopter across the street in a parking lot where the Sheraton is now.
Larry Kane, former KYW anchor: In 1972, Richard M. Nixon flew into Philadelphia and had lunch at the Old Original, escorted by Frank Rizzo. There was a heliport nearby, and people were stunned that the President had flown in that day. I interviewed people in and around Bookbinder's and on Walnut Street. I always felt it was rude to walk into a restaurant and do an interview without an invitation. There was also a myth — I assume it's a myth — that live lobsters hated bright lights.
Frank Rizzo Jr.: We'd go there as a family on my father's mayoral election nights, and we'd always sit in the main dining room at one of the big round tables. John Taxin and my father knew each other as boys, and they had a very personal relationship. My father helped them with their parking — they were struggling because there was no off-street parking down there.
Gus De Pasquale: Mayor Rizzo used to ride down on his motorcycle when he was a cop, and when he came in as mayor, the whole dining room would stop and clap for him.
Dominic Sabatini, former president of Penn's Landing Corporation: Anytime Monday Night Football was here, you'd see Howard Cosell come in before the game. There's a famous story when Howard Cosell was doing Monday Night Football that he got drunk and went on the air — and that may well have been at Bookie's.
Meryl Levitz, president, GPTMC: Albert Taxin was very sweet. He took such care of Doris. I was working with Doris at the Convention & Visitors Bureau, and he would always send food over and he'd always drop her off at work. They looked like the top-of-the-wedding-cake couple.
Doris Taxin: If we saw a family that looked like they were having a special occasion, we'd go over and say, “You're our deal of the day!” And we'd pick up the check.
John Taxin: I was a huge fan of Dr. J, and he became a good friend of my father's. I remember once we all went on a vacation together, and I was in awe. We were on the golf course, and someone asked him if he would caddy. He laughed and said, “I can caddy, but it's going to cost you a lot.”
I always liked it when people came back and said hi to the cooks and the dishwashers. Julius Erving did that, Muhammad Ali did that, and Frank Sinatra. When Jerry Jones owned the Cowboys, he always came in, and one time he went upstairs to a Temple football recruiting event and let everyone try on his Super Bowl ring.
Marnie Witten, granddaughter of former Eagles owner Leonard Tose: Bookbinder's was one of the only places that was open on Sundays, and it wasn't too far from the stadium, so my grandfather would go after the game. We'd always sit in the
barroom — my grandfather loved to sit at the bar and have a drink and a smoke.
The first time I ever met Julia [Tose, Leonard's fourth wife] was at Bookbinder's — we had a family dinner there so we could meet her. I was at a horse show on Long Island, and he sent a helicopter to pick me up and fly me back. We landed right there across the street at the helipad, and he was very excited for us to meet her. She was stylish and impeccably dressed.
Harry Weiner, former seafood vendor and current perpetually tanned man-about-town: Practically all of the seafood consumed at Bookbinder's in the '70s and '80s came from me, so I was in there all the time, and Albert became my best friend. There were so many celebrities coming in there, and there was never a time when Albert or John didn't pick up the check. I remember once when Milton Berle was playing the Latin Casino, he jumped up on top of a table and screamed, “If I can't pay my own check, I'm never coming in here again!” And he still didn't pay the check.
John Taxin: We used to joke that Leonard Tose and Harry Weiner had a bet as to who could get married the most. Down at the fish market, Harry had pictures of all five of his wives lined up in front of his desk. Harry was having one of his weddings here in the '80s, and Leonard dropped by and said, “I'll get the next one!” I think they had one wife in common. One time during one of Harry's weddings, the place caught on fire.
Marnie Witten: I was at that wedding, at Harry Weiner's wedding!
Susanna Foo, restaurateur: When I came over from Taiwan, I lived with a host family in Pittsburgh, where I went to school. We went to Bookbinder's on 2nd Street once, and it was an incredible event. We all had the lobster aprons, and their lobster was great. The Taxins were a nice family, and Mrs. Taxin used to come into my restaurant and give me helpful suggestions.
Anthony Pantalone: My favorite moment was the night when David Bowie came in, during the tour with the big spider at the Vet. He brought his whole entourage in — 40-plus people — around midnight. There were a lot of gorgeous girls, too. I remember he was a handsome guy with a beautiful multicolored shirt.
There were a lot of gay people in the show, and they weren't even bothering with the girls. They drank champagne and stayed till 3:30 a.m. We didn't mind, because Albert paid us extra, and he'd do that kind of thing for celebrities like Bowie, and Frank Sinatra and Peter Allen. Then there was that big concert that was simultaneously here and in England — Live something? They all came. Madonna came in dressed as plain as plain can be.
Seventy percent of business was out-of-towners, it kept us going, and a lot of Japanese guests. They'd spend. They'd get the biggest lobsters and steaks, because it cost nothing here compared to what they'd spend in Japan.
Rich Costello, president, Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police: They had a busboy who turned out to be a mob hit man, who was involved in hits in the '80s. It was a busboy by the name of Theodore “Teddy” DiPretoro from Dickinson Street; he was a suspect in the assassination of Phil “Chicken Man” Testa, who took over from Angelo Bruno. [DiPretoro pleaded guilty to that killing.]
Nick DeBenedictis, chairman, Aqua America (formerly Suburban Water Company): They had the world's worst waiters. I never left there without having something spilled on me.
Hal Rosenbluth, former president and CEO, Rosenbluth International: I'd go with my friends Alvin and Gary Block after Eagles games. I'd always see Leonard Tose there, and it was nice to unwind there with some hot chowder. I was a lowlife, not one of the luminaries, so I didn't have a regular seat. I'd schlep in in my jeans. It was upbeat, almost like the Roaring '20s. I'd also go to 15th Street when our office was on Walnut Street. We'd go to dinner after Top of the Tooz bar, assuming we could still stand. That place was more depressing.
Elliott Curson: One time I went in after a movie and this guy said, “Hey Elliott, know who I am?” I said, “You look like Ron Perelman, but you're so thin.” He said, “I am Ron Perelman, and this is my wife, Claudia.” That was two wives ago.
The 1990s till 2003:
In 1989, the Palm opened. A few years later came Striped Bass, Rouge and Brasserie Perrier. Albert Taxin, beloved by his customers, died of a brain tumor in 1993. Poor luck hit the rambling old wooden structure, too, says John Taxin: “In my history, I remember three or four fires. I was very lucky [they weren't worse].” But regulars still carried the torch.
Evan Lambert, owner, Savona restaurant: It was very nostalgic, with its photos on the wall and the traditional Northeastern seafood menu. There's a place in every city for nostalgia. When I think of Bookbinder's, I think of Sparks Steakhouse in New York: You walked in and you felt like you were back in 1940.
John Taxin: If somebody was having a function, Mayor Rendell would always pop in, and then he'd take a seafood salad to go.
In September 1999, the Inquirer published a devastating review by Craig LaBan of both Bookbinder's restaurants. Old Original came off worse, with its knee-buckling prices and boiled-till-rubber lobsters. Still, it had its loyalists. And the tourists. And the politicians.
Marnie Witten: My grandfather still went when it wasn't the place to be anymore. I remember being there with him just a couple of years ago, after Johnny Taxin was in charge. Suddenly his father was gone, and he took over.
John Taxin: During the Republican convention, Bob Dole, former President Bush, Colin Powell and Mary Matalin came in. This was before September 11th, but we had Secret Service everywhere, and checking all the exits. Then an aide called the next day and said, “President Bush would like to come in for lunch.” We were closed, I had a banquet booked, but what can I say to the former President? Then at lunchtime, Bob Dole came in, and we sent him up to the banquet by mistake — we thought he was there for the party.
Larry Kane: Even in its latter days, the Bookbinder's bar was a gathering place for would-be and alleged powerbrokers. It was one of the smokiest bars in Philadelphia, too, and celebrities liked to eat dinner there, to smoke and seek some anonymity. And the Taxins didn't wince at me ordering chicken. I've always been a chicken man.
Meryl Levitz: In the '80s, it was still considered venerable, but we got this speeded-up Restaurant Renaissance in the '90s. And all of a sudden there were all these new restaurants, and hotel restaurants got so good — there was competition everywhere.
John Taxin: In 2001, our utility bills were $600,000. The infrastructure was really old. I started to worry about a situation like what happened with the Pier 34 collapse. We had five or six fires over a few years.
Jim Cuarato, city commerce director: I heard it was closing on the radio when I was in my car. Instead of going to my office, I went right to Bookbinder's. Everyone who worked there was crying.
The Taxins are scheduled to reopen Bookbinder's this summer — a much smaller, completely renovated Bookbinder's, with 19 condos and eight apartments built in the old banquet rooms and in a new building set in the old alley behind the restaurant. Most important, the Presidents Room bar and paneling are intact and will be a centerpiece of the restaurant. This pleases most people (though not George Bochetto).
George Bochetto, attorney and former boxing commissioner: I'm glad they shut down. I never really liked either Bookbinder's. I'm tired of all my clients calling and asking which one they should try when they come to Philly and which one is the real one.
Angel Ortiz, former Philadelphia City Council member: I wish they'd bring it back again. I'd like to go there and eat some raw oysters.
Neil Stein: What made Bookbinder's so successful in its day is precisely what makes it impossible now: its sheer size. There's too much competition now. Some things are not to be re-created, but to leave a great memory. If you think of the great seafood restaurants in Philadelphia, you have to think of Striped Bass as second, and Bookbinder's as first. b