"In my heart, I loved it," says Stephen Starr, recalling the vacant Walnut Street space that was the Old Original Bookbinder's. He'd wandered through the rooms a year-and-a-half ago, pondering the possibilities.
The halls, he said, still resonated with history and nearly a century of memorabilia, a photo gallery of the Taxin family shaking hands with a sepia-toned "who's who" of lobster-bibbed celebs, from Joe DiMaggio to Abbott and Costello to a then-still-popular Richard Nixon. Could resurrecting this Philadelphia giant be his next project?
"It was unbelievable. And in my heart I wanted to take over Bookbinder's and do it all over again," he said. "But . . . ." The "but" list is long enough that any sane businessman could be excused for passing. The once-proud Bookbinder name - sadly sold out long ago as a synonym for "tourist trap" - had already gone under twice. A third try didn't feel lucky. And then there was "the Striped Bass juju" - the lingering bad taste in Starr's mouth of failing to sustain his resuscitation of Neil Stein's grand seafood palace, despite some critical acclaim.
"I'm just not meant to go in and take over someone else's things," said Starr.
He can be excused, I suppose, for making the safe choice. But if the whimsical and unfocused Route 6 is the best he can do, I think he whiffed big-time on a chance to do something more meaningful, with a restaurant that spoke both to his heart and to the snapper-soup soul of this city.
This is not to say that Route 6 is a terrible restaurant. It's a casual, pleasant space with enough virtues that I'd return for, from the raw bar and excellent chowder to some of the better straight-ahead lobster cookery in town. But it is also a concept restaurant in the classic Starr sense, with a coastal trawl of inspirations from Maine to Maryland (plus a stop along its namesake road in Cape Cod) that lands both everywhere and nowhere at once.
Philly's fish-house tradition is seriously endangered, with only the Oyster House remaining as a vital touchstone. But if the genre had a passing chance at revival when Starr toured Old Bookie's halls, it's faded almost completely at Route 6, to the point where it isn't even a ghost hiding in the glassy white cupboards that ring the inner "galley" dining room.
The massive 170-seat space, carved from the former showrooms of Wilkie Subaru, is certainly evocative of a seaside somewhere. It feels vaguely like the Hamptons, with its jaunty sloping ceiling, airy shell displays, beach-shack tables, and the lively open kitchen where the wood-fired hearth is fronted by a raw bar and counter seating. The darker outer dining room that rings the "galley," meanwhile, has more of a generic chain look, with exposed brick walls, brass lamps, deep booths, and sails that winch high atop the windowpanes to prevent the sight of North Broad Street from breaking the nautical groove.
Though a familiar jar of pungent horseradish sits on the tables to go with the oyster crackers made (too crunchy) by chef Anthony DiRienzo, a Chicago native and veteran of Michael Mina's West Coast seafood empire, the menu is most inspired by New England.
And all is well if one begins with a raw-bar platter shucked from the dozen or so pristine oysters and clams - briny Wellfleets, crisp Beau Soleils, delicate Kusshi from the West Coast, minerally Belons, and surf-salty cherrystones - followed by a hot mug of creamy chowder, rich with bacon and good clam liquor. My spoon also found the surprise of half a dozen plump whole littlenecks bobbing amid the milky broth and hearty potatoes.
I know my guest, who summers a few hundred yards from Route 6 in Truro, was feeling the vacation mood, with a satisfying warm-up in the cocktail lounge over chunky smoked bluefish dip and a Cape Codder blushing with cranberry ginger compote. And then our waiter arrived to launch into a sleepy-time recitation of the menu (as if we couldn't read) so long that my guest had "sobered up" by the end for what was to be an occasionally bumpy meal.
The "classic" lobster roll was excellent, the sweet, tender meat in herbed lemon mayo tucked into a butter-toasted, top-split bun - textbook with a light chef twist, albeit on the small side for $24. But the lobster spaghetti special was a disaster, the well-cooked crustacean meat wasted in a sauce that was dry and overpowered by a bitter spice that tasted as if a box of cayenne had been dropped in at the last moment. The Maryland-style crab cake was a paragon of sweet lump goodness, but the dome of crab, paired with nothing but slaw and fried onions, was missing something (like a sauce) to keep it moist. My grilled swordfish, meanwhile, scented with the cherry and oak logs from the wood-fired grill, had been cooked until it was dry as sawdust.
Such inconsistency, especially with entrées, makes it hard to give Route 6 a full two-bell endorsement, even if most of those entrées are fairly priced in the low $20s. At another meal, the simple steamed lobster platter was truly succulent - a result I've rarely seen in Philly - with an irresistible side of richly creamed corn. But a wood-roasted skillet of beautiful scallops was overwhelmed by too much garlic. A mustard-crusted bluefish - an important staple in the Philly fish canon - was also dry and noticeably sauce-less, upstaged by a side of potato-and-bacon salad.
The classic desserts were equally uneven - with a marvelous caramelized apple pie and a rich slice of coconut cream, while the pecan pie was overcooked to crusty oblivion and an otherwise tasty baked Alaska was cloaked in an unpleasantly runny meringue.
If I'd eaten only starters here, Route 6 would have been in for a far more cheery review. More delights from the raw bar: a perfect shrimp cocktail, the tender meat infused with its poach in grapefruit juice and chiles; also a cracked Dungeness crab with a zippy Worcestershire-tinged Louis dressing, harking back to DiRienzo's San Francisco days. Deviled eggs generously stuffed with lump crab salad tingled with cayenne-mustard heat. The "chopped" salad was more of a flimsy mixed green salad tossed with grilled shrimp and Green Goddess dressing. But the Caesar salad was refreshingly crunchy and piquant, topped with plump, silvery anchovies.
The fried appetizers, meanwhile, were generally fine - even if the craggy-crusted, buttermilk-hot sauce batter isn't ideal for every ingredient. It did work down-home wonders for the meaty lobster tails, which were "chicken-fried" next to a zippy green Tabasco aioli. But it was slightly too heavy for the fried Ipswich clams, though it was still a treat to taste those rich clam bellies in midwinter.
The fried oysters, meanwhile, were beautifully done - moist scoops of pudding inside delicate hot crusts. I only wish they'd been presented over something other than a shell of tartar sauce. A cool scoop of chicken salad is exactly what they needed - an odd combo, for sure, if your only references are the fish shacks and crab houses of New England and Maryland. But that pairing is one of the iconic tastes of a true Philadelphia fish house. And the opportunity to recast that spirit (Route 611, anyone?) somehow got lost on Stephen Starr's journey from Bookie's to Route 6.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.