Long before Georges Perrier or Jose Garces, Philadelphia had Lew Tendler’s Tavern.
By Gabe Oppenheim | A certain type of restaurant once occupied the northeast corner of Broad and Locust streets—the kind of place you can’t find in Philadelphia, or any other historic American city, anymore. It was a pub where mobsters, athletes, and writers gathered—where working-class men ate and drank alongside the city’s power players. Where everyone wore a suit, from the mugs to the opera patrons, and any interaction, any bumping of shoulders, might alter forever the trajectory of a person’s life. Suddenly, he or she might have a new career, or lover, or enemy.
The place was Tendler’s. The time: that period from Prohibition to the Summer of Love when a movie could be called “The Philadelphia Story” to indicate a certain social class and a boxer could be called a “Philadelphia fighter” to indicate his possession of intelligence and grit.
Lew Tendler was a Philadelphia Jewish lightweight who twice fought Benny Leonard for the title and twice lost. He retired in 1928, saying, “I don’t want to wind up without a dime the way so many other fighters have.” In 1932, he opened up a restaurant next to Horn and Hardart’s, across from the Academy of Music, the old opera hall.
Tendler’s front room was called the Sporting Room. The bar was on the right, the booths on the left. On the floor was a gigantic picture of Tendler in his boxing pose. Years later, Tendler’s granddaughter Sharon came for dinner every Sunday and would yell at entering customers, “You can’t walk on my grandfather’s picture! You have to walk around.”
The bar had the first two big-screen TVs around. All the barflies had nicknames. They were called Oysters, Sugar, Schools, Lippy, Blinky, Fats. A man named Sassy Doc led a group called “The Outfit,” which included Jumbo and Little Neck. Sassy hailed from Northeast Philly and was known for setting the city record for sports gambling and numbers-writing arrests: 38. Once the cops bashed his door in with a sledgehammer and found him pouring 1,500 horseracing bets scrawled on rice paper into a bowl of water.
Tendler’s bar was packed on fight night. People would bet hundreds of thousands of dollars. As the rounds went on and people got nervous, nobody would spend money on a drink. This was a problem for the bar. Roy Tendler, Lew’s son, had a solution. When the fight would end, and they’d wait for the decision, Roy would shut off the TV. “If I don’t see some money on the bar…” he’d say. Customers would pound bills on the wood, and the fight would reappear like magic.
All the different crowds mingled at Tendler’s, including the Jewish and Italian mafias. Mob heavy Blinky Palermo once had a showdown with Sugar Ray Robinson here. He asked him in front of the restaurant to throw a fight, and though Robinson didn’t want to, he had no choice. So he was going to do it, but in the third, his opponent nailed him and he instinctively threw a left hook back. The other fighter fell. Later that night, Blinky sidled over to Sugar at Tendler’s.
“It was an accident,” Sugar pleaded. “I just happened to catch him with the hook.”
“Alright,” Blinky said. “Nothing we can do about it now.”
The theater crowd came before and after the shows. After World War II, guys went to Tendler’s to meet girls. Even today, people walk up to Roy Tendler and tell him they met their spouses at his father’s restaurant. Lew Tendler still walked through the place, schmoozing with the customers.
When the theater crowd cleared, the contract bridge players set up their games. Their card-talk merged with talk of boxing. That’s how the term “uppercut” gained application in bridge, to describe a situation where a high but losing trump forces out a higher trump from the declarer’s hand.
There was a celebrity crowd, of course. Just as bridge and boxing mixed until one contained elements of the other, so did these men and women soak each other in—the Daily News writer Jack McKinney used the place as his base to cover both the classical music and boxing scene. Tendler’s had a table, too, reserved for City Hall pols.
The modern National Football League was practically invented at Tendler’s. From 1947-57, the NFL’s four-person executive staff worked out of a three-room dance studio on Walnut Street. Commissioner Bert Bell C’20, an addict of cigarettes, chocolate, and coffee, ate at Tendler’s and often brought Giants owner Tim Mara and the Bears’ George Halas. He even offered Roy Tendler a job, though Roy declined. “I should’ve taken it,” Roy says today at 84. It had been over a dinner at Tendler’s years before that the league as we know it today took shape. Bell insisted that a game between the Eagles, which he owned in the 1930s, and the Brooklyn Football Dodgers be cancelled. It was due to be played the next day in the former Sesquicentennial Stadium, which lacked cover, and the forecast called for rain. The Dodgers’ owner knew the NFL wouldn’t take in American society if it played games on “a hit-or-miss basis” so he argued against cancellation. Bell relented, and the show went on. Eventually, fans grew to love the NFL precisely because it played in practically any weather, no matter how inclement.
All the sportswriters came: Dan Parker, whom Damon Runyon once called “the most constantly brilliant of all sportswriters”; Pulitzer-winner Red Smith; erudite, brawling Jack McKinney, who hosted a national radio show, jumped out of an airplane, collected opera records, and sparred with Sonny Liston; Larry Merchant, the editor who revolutionized sports sections with his mid-century shake-up of the Daily News; and Jimmy Cannon, who was said to be the first sportswriter to earn $100,000 a year. They formed a cynical panel of critics whom any manager had to impress to steer his fighter into big matches.
The place hit its electric peak on the night in 1952 when Rocky Marciano, from Brockton, Massachusetts, challenged local Jersey Joe Walcott for the latter’s heavyweight title—in the very stadium where Gene Tunney took the title from Dempsey 26 years earlier in a bout whose paid-attendance record stood for 80 years—120,000 patrons. Marciano knocked out Walcott in the 13th.
It was on nights like these, when fights still gripped the country, that Tendler’s bar became the focus of the entire East Coast. Men all along the Atlantic would board $25 trains for Philly and converge on Tendler’s to try to score free tickets from someone. The New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling called this phenomenon “looking for friends to put the lug on.”
The night Rocky Marciano fought Jersey Joe Walcott, Liebling took the 5 o’clock from Penn Station in New York. Upon arriving he immediately sought Tendler’s. He knew it was the place to be, and in a keen outsider way, he understood why. Tendler, the perennial contender, never the champion, “has remained a Philadelphia idol,” Liebling said, “because, I think, he embodies the city’s sense of being eternally put upon.” Trouble was, Liebling couldn’t find the place, and he refused to ask for directions. He walked himself tired and hungry, and settled for a nearby restaurant named Mike Banana’s.
Lew Tendler moved from Philadelphia to the Jersey shore in 1960 and leased the Broad Street restaurant to his nephew Pinky. In the summer of 1970 they began shutting it down, “because of the demise of Center City,” Tendler’s granddaughter Sharon says. “Malls were popping up all over, and people were moving to the suburbs.”
Lew Tendler died of an arterial clot the same year his tavern closed. He was 72. Three years later, his son Milton had a heart attack and died at 44. Tendler’s other son Phil brought his father’s boxing gloves and jukebox to a novelty consignment shop. Then Phil died, and his daughter asked for the stuff back, and the shop owner refused.
The northeast corner of Broad and Locust now houses a seafood restaurant that serves the well-heeled patrons of nearby theaters. Its stretch of South Broad Street—or the Avenue of the Arts, as former mayor Ed Rendell C’65 Hon’00 rebranded it—is where polite society goes out to see shows and shop. There is a Ritz-Carlton and a Ralph Lauren—nice companies both, though neither is particular to Philadelphia or very likely to host the urban collisions, between wildly disparate factions of society, that once made a certain type of restaurant the only place to be.