A little over seven years-ago, nationally renowned, local Chef Jose Garces was starting another thrilling chapter in his story.
“I love challenges,” Garces told Metro in February 2015 from the kitchen of his then-latest conquest, The Olde Bar, at 125 Walnut.
What was once, famously, the Old Original Bookbinder’s — Philly’s famous seafood house and home-away-from-home to celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and his Rat Pack — had fallen into disrepair. Opened at that same Old City location when it wasn’t so old in 1898, Bookbinder’s changed ownership in the 1930s, went into bankruptcy in 2006, and was unoccupied when Garces entered its arches. He saw “good bones,” artisanal woodwork, stained glass windows, and a 4,000-square-foot kitchen, and made the space noir-supper club-ish with a Pop edge.
But even still-fresh ideas need refreshing, and by 2020, Garces, along his design team – influenced by the pandemic’s need for safe distance and a library vibe harkening back to the Golden Age of Philadelphia tin ceiling architecture – re-imagined the Olde Bar, again, but with an eye toward its origin story. That means something stately and subtly elegant, but touched, too, by the patina of celebrity; a cool and supple flashiness filled with vintage B&W photos of the famous that is also reflected in Olde Bar’s sumptuous new menu items such as Tamarind glazed lobster, salmon with sunchokes, sour apple, and smoked roe, and soft-shell shrimp-n-vanilla-grits with pork andouille. Plus, Garces and Co. have given the heavy drapery-divided dining rooms an oddball, Wes Anderson-circa-‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ feel when it comes to its fanciful, exploded-reality paintings of sartorially-comported mammals and slices of post Baroque wallpaper.
“The library-themed dining room is meant to pay homage to the original traditions that made Bookbinder’s a landmark in Philadelphia,” said Garces this week. “Our long-term goal was always to celebrate the nostalgia of that place and time in Philadelphia’s history, but with our own unique spin. We are always on the look out to honor the past with an eye for the future. The new library nooks and the new menu are great examples of how old meets new.”
Along with its designing chef, Garces’ COO Scott Campanella had a hand in Olde Bar’s re-re-design, one focused on transforming Bookbinder’s legendary ballroom space where Sinatra & Co held court, into an intentional, semi-permanent dining space that provided ample room for socially distanced dining.
“We used the original restaurant, Bookbinders, as our primary inspiration and created library nooks to pay homage to the name (although, adds Campanella, Bookbinders was the family name, nothing to do with publishing/library/binding of books),” he says.
There are 13 separate “nooks,’ each with a distinct look and feel, and their own brand of airiness to go with them (blame the divider walls that don’t quite reach the high tin ceilings). Going for a vintage Philadelphia library feel, Campanella states that the Garces team outsourced its books and some of the “library” items such as the green Depression glass-hooded study lamps, book shelves while modernizing the bibliophile vibe to include bookmarks that featured the QR code for contactless menus. When it came to its old, new, old paintings and photographs, Campanella pulled the artwork and decor from existing pieces within what was left over from the Bookbinder’s collections.
“The idea was to be intentional and playful with the name Bookbinder’s but, of course, with our own twist,” says Campanella, echoing Garces’ words.
And, as for the Olde Bar dining room’s color scheme, it is soft, spacey, nearly pastel – the feminine opposite of most machismo-driven steak, chop and seafood houses of the distant Bookbinder’s past – and lovelier than what we have come to expect from newer dining rooms in this city. That’s the biggest design element of the Olde Bar. At a time when the sleek and the steely is expected, Garces re-born Olde Bar goes for something softer, stately and almost serene.