Resting On Faded Laurels Too Many Outsiders, "Bookbinders" Is Synonymous With Philadelphia. But At The Two Bookbinder Restaurants Here, The Reality Is A Sad Contrast With The Reputation.

Posted: September 05, 1999

It was 18 years ago, about this time of year, that I first walked through the ship captain's wheel that leads to the dining room.

I remember a room that sparkled with brass fixtures and mirrors and dark wood. And I remember the cans of soup. The yellow and blue labels that read "Snapper" and "Pepperpot" were the only certification a youngster needed to know that this place was big league. Wow. They had their own brand.

Old Original Bookbinder's was famous, even in the supermarkets near where I grew up in Detroit. Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance had already bloomed with other interesting places to eat. But we had driven all the way from Michigan to drop my sister off at the University of Pennsylvania, and we weren't going to leave town until we dined at the city's most noted eatery.

Don't ask me how it was. All I remember is what came to be a yearly family tradition: the 13-hour drive, my sister's move-in at Penn, the soup I had eaten made from turtles. And, that it was famous.

Almost two decades later, as Philadelphia thrives in what some have called its second restaurant renaissance, I couldn't help but wonder about Old Original Bookbinder's and its offshoot and longtime rival, Bookbinders 15th Street Seafood House. Penn's move-in, after all, is this weekend. And how many of those parents - still, after all the city's dining progress - have heard only of the Bookbinder name?

Which should they visit, Old Original on Walnut Street, now run by the Taxin family, or 15th Street Bookbinders, still run by the family that founded the first Bookbinder restaurant on Walnut Street?

I asked many Philadelphians this question as I prepared for this head-to-head review and usually saw eyes begin to roll. Did they lack appreciation for old-fashioned restaurants, the torchbearers of a century-old tradition? I wondered.

When I visited both Bookbinders myself - each three times - I found the truth to be worse than I'd ever imagined: two restaurants spiraling into the basement of faded glory for different reasons.

The original is a tourist trap with lackluster food and outrageous prices. The other is a time-beaten fish house whose occasionally decent old-fashioned fare is dimmed by noticeably shabby surroundings. Both pale against the high standards set by the city's contemporary restaurant scene.

The winner of the once-heated rivalry might seem obvious at first glance. Old Original has prospered nicely on its tourist trade and historic building. Its grand bar and dining rooms are as polished and bustling as ever. Its gift shop is stocked with everything from shot glasses to Beanie babies. Its wall of celebrity photos is up-to-date. Even new Eagles coach Andy Reid is there.

A trip to Bookbinders 15th Street, meanwhile, is like visiting the poor frumpy cousin. The dining room has been repainted recently, but you'd never know it, with chocolate brown and pale aqua paint that takes you straight back to the 1970s.

Some of the dining room chairs don't match. There's water damage in the ceiling tiles. A scrap of metal patches the door handle that closes off the upstairs dining rooms. The fixtures in the musty men's room are falling out of the wall. An example of the restaurant's souvenir T-shirt hangs smudged with dirt near the cash register. And the hall of celebrity photos is so dated, there is a shot of Carole Channing actually in town for something other than Hello, Dolly! (Show Girl in 1960.)

Richard Bookbinder's daughter, Gretchen, joined the restaurant in June and promises "big time" renovations in the future. They can't come soon enough.

First glances, however, might not be the most important. Because when it comes to the quality of food, service, and value, 15th Street has Old Original beat -- from the oyster crackers to the coffee. I condemned the unruly tourists at Walnut Street whom I saw tossing their stale oyster crackers into the lobster pond. But it was an apt comment on their edibility.

Since my review visits, Old Original has replaced its executive chef, Andrew Sukley, with his former first assistant, Clifton Davis, a 24-year veteran of the Walnut Street kitchen. Judging from the following rundown of our recent meals at 15th Street and Old Original, Davis has his work cut out for him. I'll check back. But the good news is, the only place to go is up.

Soups. These are among the most important traditions these restaurants can uphold, but what has happened at Old Original? I had the canned version of its snapper soup recently and it was superior to the restaurant's effort, which tasted like stringy hard brisket in barbecue sauce. The Friday bouillabaisse had a bland broth that was musty from dried herbs and filled with mealy shrimp. And a giant hunk of potato was lodged in my cup of Manhattan-style chowder, so I will never know if there was really clam in its broth.

At 15th Street, the soups are thicker than I'd like, but full of good authentic flavors. The dark snapper soup sends up wafts of clove and allspice from its addictive richness. Every spoonful of bouillabaisse overflows with freshly cooked shrimp, scallop or crab.

Crabcakes. These days they rarely come described as anything but "pure lump crab." And 15th Street's deep-fried cake more than filled the bill, with only mayo and chive and a little egg to bind its tasty sweet lump filling.

My crabcake at Old Original was far too flabby with flour and bread-crumb filler to do that description justice. I also seriously doubt that this bland-flavored patty was indeed the advertised 11 ounces, a real disappointment for $32.

Lobster. If the overpriced crabcake brought sticker shock, Old Original's vaunted lobster seemed a surreal gag. The 21/2-pound medium lobster I ordered for $57.50 - the most I have ever paid for a single entree - came so overcooked the tail meat emerged in tiny shreds. This made the surf and turf, with its minuscule rubber lobster tail and livery morsel of filet mignon, seem a bargain at $45.95.

A similarly sized lobster at 15th Street will still run you $42.95, but mine were impeccably prepared, steamed sweet and moist on one occasion, broiled to a tender char glazed with lemon on another.

Creative cooking. No one thinks of either Bookbinder restaurant as a destination for creative cooking, and with good reason. The seafood eggroll at 15th Street was greasy and stuffed with a bizarre seafood pulp. A browned timbale of lobster cheesecake had a nice flavor, but barely a trace of lobster. All my pasta was boiled to mush.

Mango chutney sounded awfully chic for Old Original. But it was too bland to offer any help to the soggy sauteed soft-shell crab. A special swordfish fillet wrapped in prosciutto and provolone was even weirder than it sounded, a ham and cheese tube stuffed with overcooked fish, floating over a bowl of soupy white beans.

Plain seafood. More straightforward preparations didn't fare much better. The sauteed scallops at 15th Street were sodden with grease. The lightly battered sole was served in a thickened lemon goo. Pale fried calamari were workmanlike at best. Cold poached salmon had a nice flavor, but disintegrated on the fork from overdoneness.

The scallops at Old Original were broiled to the texture of polyurethane plugs. Baked stuffed shrimp went uneaten by my wife, who is a forgiving aficionado of this classic, because the stuffing had an awfully fishy tang for crab. Pan-fried trout was so overcooked it had absolutely no flavor.

Salads. The salads were surprisingly good and fresh at 15th Street, with crisp lettuce, bright dressings and a modern touch or two, a handful of sweet grape tomatoes, a breaded round of tasty goat cheese.

At Old Original, the salads were as insulting as the lobster. I've had better seafood salads from a pizzeria than the $13.95 version I got on Walnut Street, in which a few overcooked shrimps and a nearly imperceptible shred of crab hid amidst the soggy lettuce. Chopped tomato salad came as if dumped from a bucket, a pile of pale pink tomato wedges and onions, turning gray from sitting around.

Desserts. Old-fashioned sweets did what they could to win us back at the end of the meal. The cheesecake and the peanut butter pie made by Richard Bookbinder at 15th Street were prototypes of fluffy, homespun confections.

And the mile-high cakes at Old Original thankfully towered over the lingering taste of the sour brown coffee. The strawberry shortcake was as big as a doorstop - moist pastry, whipped cream and fruit. And coconut layer cake was an incredible production of lemony cream and soft spongecake. I loved it, even though it was so big and furry with coconut shreds it drooped off the plate like a white shag bathmat.

With such a good finish, it is a shame I cannot shake the image of Old Original's sample dessert tray. It arrived at our table so smashed, cracked, smushed, and smeared, it was as if one of those happy-go-lucky conventioneers had rolled across it.

"The desserts really look much better than this," our server assured us with apologies. "These have just been sitting out all day."

You get the feeling that, like the dessert tray, both of these restaurants can be much better than they showed. And for these prices they really should be. A proud old institution can add such value to an ambitious restaurant scene, with a sense of history and continuity, it's a shame the Bookbinder restaurants have become overpriced shadows of another generation. They should instead live up to their grand legacy. They owe it to the public, both locals and tourists alike.

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