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Original Bookbinders, Philadelphia

A $4.5 million renovation revitalized this Philadelphia landmark restaurant, giving it a new open kitchen with enormous firepower, an oyster bar, a huge lobster tank and a restored, clubby President’s Room with an Amazon mahogany bar.

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It’s hard to imagine Philadelphia without the Old Original Bookbinders, once the city’s largest and most famous restaurant. The city’s residents and visitors, many of them high-profile entertainment stars and political figures, had a taste of this disturbing possibility when the restaurant was closed from Dec. 31, 2001, until Feb. 21, 2005, for a major renovation.

“The restaurant dates back to the mid-1860s and with additions and renovations consisted of a 54,000-square-foot, multi-level space with seven different dining rooms, three bars and 800 seats,” explains John Taxin, the third-generation owner. “We had invested about $3 million in expenses during the 1990s and faced many more costly repairs in this aging infrastructure. We kept the kitchen clean, but it was old and beat up. Summer temperatures could reach 130 °, so it was hard to keep staff.” Then, after a deal with a developer collapsed, followed by yet another costly maintenance problem on the last day of service, New Year’s Eve 2001, Taxin closed the restaurant. He later entered into a partnership with Renaissance Properties.

The arrangement with Renaissance Properties maintained the front of the restaurant as a historic building, while the rest of the structure was rebuilt as part of a $21 million, historic redevelopment project called The Morvian at Independence Park. The redevelopment includes eight new luxury apartments and 19 condominiums that adjoin the new, 13,000-square-foot restaurant that now has 380 seats, 150 of which are in the dining room. The $4.5 million restaurant renovation includes an open kitchen; back-of-the-house production kitchen; oyster bar; a restored, clubby President’s Room with an Amazon mahogany bar; and banquet and meeting rooms. Equipment costs totaled $650,000.

“I wanted an open kitchen because I’m proud of what we do and want customers to see how clean and efficient the kitchen is,” Taxin says. “Cooks don’t get enough credit for their work when they are behind the scenes in the back of the house. Now, they are part of the show.” A 48-inch divider wall separates the dining room from the kitchen, which allows customers to watch or tune-out the kitchen action as they please.

Though some of the back of the building and all the interiors, with the exception of the President’s Room, were completely gutted, Taxin saved the art and antiques, which are on display today in the restaurant. In designing the interior, Philadelphia-based Floss Barber combined historic and current décor elements. “We borrowed from the turn-of-the-century French bistros,” Barber says. “Our aim was to make the restaurant comfortable while keeping the focus on the patrons and food.”

The open, airy space is colored in a palette that includes buttery yellows, spicy cinnamon tones and warm mahoganies with accents of silver.

The Bookbinders’ mosaic of a lobster captures customers’ attention in the entrance and reception area. To the right is what Taxin claims is the largest circular lobster tank in the world for this application, holding up to 300 pounds of lobsters. Another attention-grabber is a curved raw bar made from spice-toned granite, stainless steel and mahogany. A restored chandelier that hung in an original banquet room now hangs over the bar in the dining area. “The only room that wasn’t gutted was the President’s Room, which has nine tables, a bar and lots of beveled leaded glass,” Taxin notes.

The old and new merge in the menu, as well. Executive Chef David Cunningham maintains the restaurant’s standards such as snapper soup, a cold seafood sampler, steamed lobsters and strawberry shortcake, while adding more contemporary dishes such as a new interpretation of bouillabaisse, seafood Cobb salad and yellowfin tuna tartare.

Seafood has long been the restaurant’s specialty. Located in Philadelphia’s historic Old City, the restaurant opened just after the Civil War in 1865 as a lunch counter operated by Samuel and Sarah Bookbinder, who prepared fresh seafood for sea captains, merchants, dockworkers and farmers. In the 1940s, a neighbor and regular patron, John M. Taxin of Taxin Produce, purchased the lunch counter.

After food arrives, staff walk it about 20 feet from the delivery dock to one of several walk-in refrigerator units positioned side by side: a cooler, a freezer, a fish cooler, a bakery cooler and a wine and bottled beer cooler. Dry storage is nearby. “In the old space, they had storage in the basement, so staff ran up and down continuously,” explains Bob Kline, project designer, Singer Equipment Co. in Reading, Pa. “In contrast, this facility is very efficient and makes it easy for staff to maintain sanitation standards. There is even a refrigerated garbage room.”

As needed, staff take food and supplies to stations. Closest to the food delivery entrance is the bakery that produces all baked goods — except breads — during the morning hours. Equipment here includes three worktables, a 60-quart mixer, a 12-quart mixer, a food processor and a slicer.

Across an aisle from the bakery are long banquet plating tables with heat lamps. Banquet service accounts for about two-thirds of the restaurant business.

“Among our biggest challenges for the kitchen’s layout were the many columns that hold up the building,” Kline says. “We had to fit a lot of equipment in between the columns. Also, the hoods were custom-designed to fit around the columns.” In addition, the hoods’ velocity had to be balanced so it would protect diners from exhaust while still getting the exhaust up the duct chase seven stories to the roof.

On the nearby cookline is a double-stack convection oven for baking pastries. “Good, even temperature is a must for this oven,” says Cunningham, who previously worked at Hotel Bristol in Paris and Petrosian, Le Bernardin and Lespinasse in New York City. Also on the line are a 40-gallon tilting kettle for making soups and blanching vegetables, a double-stack convection steamer that serves as a backup for lobsters for the main dining room and banquets, a six-burner range for smaller soups and stocks and a double-deck broiler for meats and fish on banquet menus. The station also includes an exhaust hood and, at the end, a reach-in refrigerator.

On the opposite side moving left to right is equipment for dining room preparation: a reach-in refrigerator; a double-stack convection steamer for clams, vegetables and lobsters; a six-burner range with a salamander above for Oysters Rockefeller, Clams Casino and vegetables; and two fryers for calamari, shrimp and french fried potatoes. At the sauté station, two six-burner ranges support pans for cooking many fish dishes; ovens beneath the ranges bake crab cakes; a double-deck broiler prepares meats and fish; a charbroiler grills fish varieties including tuna, halibut and swordfish; a deck broiler with a cabinet base cooks steaks and broiled lobsters; and a double-stack convection steamer heats lobsters.

Customers select their lobsters, which staff take to the kitchen for steaming, from the large, circular lobster tank off the reception area.

Backing this line are cold appetizer and salad prep tables; microwave ovens for melting chocolate; a four-drawer heated cabinet for bread; three-, two- and single-well hot food tables; a double overshelf; waiter/waitress pickup shelving; and heat lamps. Across an aisle are undercounter refrigerators and a counter with soup wells.

Adjacent to this section is the beverage station with an undercounter refrigerator, an iced-tea brewer, coffee brewer shuttle system, and ice bin.

The dessert station is positioned across from a walk-in cooler and is caddy-corner to the bakery. In this section are a double-wall shelf, an ice cream cabinet, a worktable with dipper well, an espresso machine, microwave oven, a two-door refrigerator, a wall shelf and worktable. Here, Pastry Chef Blair Bleacher and staff prepare classic desserts such as strawberry shortcake, chocolate chip cheesecake and coconut cake, as well as a selection of Bleacher’s new desserts such as coconut crème brulée and key lime pie.

Next to the dessert and pastry stations is a dishwashing room with a conveyor-type dishwasher with a prewash tank. The flaker and cuber ice machines and garbage disposal are in the dishwashing room, as well. Potwashing is in a separate area.

In the front of the house, the bars presented their own challenges. “The President’s Bar was difficult to lay out because the bar is so old and we couldn’t make revisions to it,” Kline explains. “At the back bar, John wanted glass-door coolers. We had to cut out cabinets and doors to get everything to fit without destroying the structure and still give John the look he wanted. At the raw bar, we had to have it built by a fabricator in sections that formed a curve. In addition, throughout the facility, we had to protect architectural pieces. For example, we had to keep the original walls and couldn’t just place equipment wherever we might have liked.”

Since its opening, the new Old Original Bookbinders has been receiving generally complimentary — and in some instances over-the-top enthusiastic — media and customer reviews. With an average daily customer count of 300 and check averages at $50, Taxin projects this year’s revenue to exceed $5.25 million. Once banquet service is in full operation, Taxin expects $7 million annually. Most important, he says, the restaurant survived what might have become a disastrous fate, but has been revived to serve many more generations. Though E&S has always been a crucial component of the restaurant’s success, now it’s on full view and part of customers’ dining experience.

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