15th Street Bookbinder’s

15th Street Bookbinder’s
215 S. 15th St.
Credit cards accepted
Open for lunch and dinner
Reservations a good idea

Labor Day Weekend was a washout. My husband Edward suggested we go out to dinner, but many restaurants were closed that Monday. He leafed through the Zagat Guide and came up with an inspired choice.

"We haven’t been to Bookbinder’s in years," he said. I called the restaurant and, to my delight, was told dinner would be served until 9 p.m.

Herewith a little history. Bookbinder’s has been in business for 109 years. It is the only Bookbinder’s owned and operated by the Bookbinder family. Old Original Bookbinder’s, which closed early this year, was owned by the Taxin family. The one still in business is called 15th Street Bookbinder’s, and is located between Walnut and Locust streets.

Although it was Labor Day, the place was bustling with couples, young families and conventioneers. We slid into a roomy booth and perused the menu. Our waitress told us the special full-course dinner for $18.95 was not available on holidays. I’ve written about this delicious bargain before and didn’t mind ordering from the menu.

Bookbinder’s used to serve warm loaves of Cacia’s bread. We received three cool ordinary rolls, a small ball of butter and one of cream cheese. Oyster crackers were on the table, but there was no horseradish. When our waitress brought some out, it was very watery but on the hot side.

From the wine list, we selected an Ecco Pinot Grigio, which was fairly priced at $24. Edward wanted New England clam chowder and I had a strong craving for a basket of steamed Ipswich clams but, unfortunately for us, the kitchen was out of both items.

Edward opted for a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder ($5.50), which arrived piping hot. It was obviously homemade, prepared with fresh fish stock and chock full of good things such as tender littleneck clams, carrots, celery, onion, potatoes and the right touch of pureed fresh tomatoes. There may have been the tiniest hint of cream added because the stock was rich and slightly thick.

I love classic clams casino and prefer them to be kept whole, not chopped. They should be prepared using cherrystone clams. "That’s no problem," said our waitress. Six clams casino ($7.95) arrived, but only three were made with cherrystones. The other three were littlenecks, so I was disappointed. The bacon was chopped beyond recognition, and I could not taste the flavors of the onion and peppers because the clams were topped with too many breadcrumbs. And, unfortunately, they were watery and a tad greasy.

We shared a Caesar salad ($4.50), which was just average since much of the lettuce was on the warm side. Still, the dressing was homemade, as were the croutons. The salad was thoughtfully split in the kitchen.

Our entrées were very good. Filet of sole ($21.95) must have been about 8 ounces of fresh, thick fish, which had been dusted in a very light batter and baked in the oven. It was tender, juicy and not a bit overcooked. The sole was placed in a pool of light white wine, lemon and butter sauce, which the French call beurre blanc. The sauce was perfection and did not congeal or separate on the plate.

I received a jumbo, piping-hot, perfectly baked potato, which I lathered with butter. Fresh asparagus was the vegetable of the day. They were of the pencil-thin variety and still retained a bit of crispness.

We both love local bluefish, caught off the Jersey shore. The chefs at Bookbinder’s take at least 8 ounces of bluefish ($17.95), rub it all over with minced fresh herbs so it forms a crust and bake it in the oven. Oh, my. This fish was just as tasty as the sole.

Edward asked for whipped new potatoes, which arrived in a small monkey dish. They were so hot, even I had to wait for them to cool down a bit before sampling them. They were creamy and rich.

When I go to lunch at Bookbinder’s on a Friday, I always order a half-dozen cherrystone clams ($6.50) and a cup of bouillabaisse ($6.95). The fish soup is only made on Friday and it is downright delicious. It is not a true bouillabaisse, as the fish arrive out of their shells. This rich soup is an American invention and I love it.

I also like Bookbinder’s brook trout ($17.95 à la carte), which is among the featured entrées for the full-course $18.95 dinner. This is classic fish at its best. The trout is sweet and light. The fish is simply broiled and topped with a light almondine sauce.

Don’t laugh, but sometimes I will order filet mignon ($28.95), which is also a dinner special. Even though Bookbinder’s is a seafood house, owner Richard Bookbinder buys top-quality beef. I order it rare and it comes out rare. And I tip my toque to Mr. Bookbinder because he serves Philadelphia’s own Bassett’s ice cream.

Bookbinder’s is what my 90-year-old father-in-law would call an "American" restaurant. You will find top-quality fresh fish, chicken and beef. The vegetables are always fresh and perfectly prepared. No one bakes a potato better than the chefs at Bookbinder’s.

It is also a family restaurant. On Labor Day, a couple and their two small children — the little girl in a high chair — were enjoying dinner. When the children became a little rambunctious, I mentioned to Edward that what they needed was ice cream. Our waitress overheard me. She brought out two small kid-sized scoops of vanilla ice cream, on the house.

Bookbinder’s is a Philadelphia tradition. But please, Richard Bookbinder, bring back Cacia’s bread.

Two tips of the toque to Bookbinder’s.