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Bookbinder's may be a Philadelphia institution, but there is much about it that is "very Richmond."

A Taste of Home

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Bookbinder's is certainly the most famous restaurant in Philadelphia, and with a history of more than 100 years, it has proved its lasting power. And in what must be the most ambitious restaurant project in Richmond in years, the Old Original Bookbinder's has come to town. (The rather cumbersome qualifiers on the name — "old," "original" — distinguish it from subsequent restaurants of the eponymous founders, who are no longer associated.)

Seating 300 in several dining rooms, the restaurant has found a handsome home in one of the refurbished buildings among Tobacco Row. It looks as if it has been there for many years. Like the original, it's clubby looking, and clearly upscale without being stuffy. It suggests that it would be comfortable to those satisfied people whom we see in the ubiquitous ads for money-managing firms. It trades its decibels for decimals. In short, it's a wonderfully inviting place to have someone else pick up the tab.

If the decor is traditional and comfortable, so is the menu. It's like an old wing chair that has been around for years — a bit worn but nobody would consider re-covering it, let alone get rid of it. Though the restaurant specializes in seafood, it follows the familiar pattern of tony steak houses with an a la carte menu.

So among the appetizers ($6.95-$14.95) you will, of course, find a shrimp cocktail, clams Casino, fried calamari, crab cakes, and fresh oysters and clams on the half-shell. More au courant are rare seared tuna with soy and wasabi, and ginger shrimp with jasmine rice. Classic oysters Rockefeller had a delicious spinach-Parmesan-Pernod topping that mostly obliterated the taste of the tiny, delicate oysters served on their shells.

The old-fashioned snapper (turtle) soup ($3.75/$5.25), billed as "Bookbinder's World Famous," is rich and complex, and a cruet of sherry on the side adds a charming touch. The rivaling chowders (New England and Manhattan) complete the soup selection. A good house salad ($4.50) with lots of Roquefort cheese is large and fresh.

[image-1](Stacy Warner / richmond.com)Though Bookbinder's specializes in fish and shellfish, carnivores receive attention, albeit in a rather unimaginative way. Three different cuts of beef are offered as steaks ($21.95-$29.95), along with a veal chop ($26.95) and grilled chicken ($15.95). Pasta lovers will find a trio of linguine ($16.95-$21.95) and seafood dishes.

A dozen main dishes ($16.95-$25.95) featuring seafood are clearly house specialties, ranging from fried shrimp to a rich shrimp and crab casserole ("imperial"), and of course, there is a lobster tank where you can choose a crustacean ranging from 2 to 5 pounds (market price). Fish are frequently grilled, and most are enhanced with a simple sauce. My swordfish steak was grilled and served with mustard-basil butter, which moistened an otherwise dry cut. Shrimp and crab imperial used to adorn many a chic menu. It has a certain nostalgic charm these days, and Bookbinder's version is rich and complex. Baked, stuffed scrod is another of those delicate gems from the past, here stuffed with shrimp and served with asparagus-fennel sauce.

Plates are garnished simply, so most people will want to augment with one or more of the extras ($2.95-$6.95), which come in bowls family-style and will serve at least two. "Johnnie's" potatoes (french fries) were unavailable, so we chose mashed potato with lobster. The lobster was in evidence visually more than in taste, and the potatoes had a strange texture, not unlike the packaged variety. At $5.95 the dish was a disappointment. Other sides are baked potatoes, creamed spinach, asparagus with hollandaise and creamed corn.

Desserts ($3.50-$5.25) are a familiar Richmond litany. We shared a good crÅ me brulée with a perfect thin sugar crust.

The wine list is fairly extensive and expensive, most bottles above $25. And as one would expect, the service was attentive and amiably casual.

The staff seems pleased with the reception in Richmond. There's much about Bookbinder's that is very Richmond,

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