Jerry Jacob, the owner of Bender’s Tavern, remembers when two-martini lunches were standard practice at downtown Canton’s landmark restaurant.
He places the “golden time” of Bender’s as the decade of 1942 to 1952. “The end of World War II and after,” he said. “Canton had so much steel and stuff for the armed services.”
These days, lunch business at Bender’s is not as vigorous as it once was at the multi-room restaurant and bar, which seats almost 200 people. “There are not as many professionals downtown,” Jacob said. But in the evenings, “dinner has been very good.”
Jacob is the third generation of Jacobs to run Bender’s, and his son Jon, the restaurant’s general manager, is the fourth. The plan is for Jon to take full ownership of Bender’s next January when Jerry, now 75, retires. Jerry’s brother Jim co-owned the place until his retirement in 2003 and Jerry bought him out.
Jacob happily shared some history. Bender’s was opened in 1902 by Ed Bender, who ran the restaurant until 1928, when he died in a fishing trip, and it closed. Bender’s wife reopened the restaurant, which soon closed again due to the Great Depression.
In 1932, Jacob’s grandfather, John S. Jacob, whose American Exchange Bank downtown on Cherry Avenue had closed due to the Depression, decided to reopen Bender’s with his son Wilbur, who was Jerry’s father. “It’s been in our family since,” Jacob said.
Fine dining came naturally to the new restaurateur John Jacob, who had been friends with Ed Bender. During his banking days, “My grandfather used to have dinner for clients where he’d bring in lobster and clams from the East Coast and steaks in from Chicago,” Jacob said. “He was a gourmet-type guy.”
Jacob’s earliest memory of the family restaurant is when at age 7 he helped paint the refrigerator floors in the basement. “I had to do a lot of dishes. I was a busboy. I waited (tables) but more for banquets and stuff,” he said. “In college, I got my degree in restaurant management.”
Today, seafood continues to be a staple at Bender’s, making up 50 percent of food sales. While Bender’s menu has evolved over many years, “we keep our basic dishes,” Jacob said. “Our most famous is turtle soup. Local walleye from Lake Erie. One thing that we really work hard on is doing seasonal foods.”
The key to the charm of Bender’s is its handsome and historic interior, characterized by stained-glass windows, marble and paneled oak walls, which lend a vintage, masculine, club feel. The barroom, in particular, is a trip back in time.
A fire in January 1988 caused Bender’s to be closed for nine months, but the restaurant reopened relatively unscathed, thankfully, but with some changes. “That’s when we changed the lunch counter into a banquet room and closed the upstairs banquet room,” Jacob said.
Asked about Bender’s clientele, Jacob quipped, “We’ve got a lot of old-time customers, but they can’t go much older than me.”
“Camp Kagel is where my grandfather used to go fishing. The fish is pan-sautéed. I like it with Bender fries, which we’re famous for, and a tossed salad.”
2. Eastern Halibut a la Foley.
“A la Foley is a cooking style. It’s baked in seasoned crumbs, and that’s all I’m saying.”
3. Bender’s Tomatoes.
“I work hard trying to get good tomatoes all year long. It’s a major problem. I bring tomatoes back from gold trips to Florida. It’s sliced tomatoes with crumbled blue cheese, basil, parsley, red onion and our homemade Italian dressing.”