Many people hungry in body and spirit have come to be fed and partake in the hospitality of ‘Canton’s Oldest and Finest’ tavern.
If walls could talk, the ones inside Bender’s Tavern, 137 Court Ave. SW in Canton, would have plenty to say.
Over the last 118 years, they’ve seen quite a bit.
Since 1902, Bender’s has been a popular gathering place for occasions happy and sad — from weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and retirement parties to funerals and farewells to friends.
Dozens of Hall of Famers (including Jim Thorpe, who was at one time a regular at the bar), professional golfer Tiger Woods, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, numerous local and national politicians, and many other famous people have had special moments here.
But, most importantly, Bender’s has become the landmark restaurant for the folks looking for fresh seasonal seafood, homegrown tomatoes and prime steaks in Northeast Ohio.
Bender’s was founded by Ed Bender, who ran the restaurant until he died in 1928 during a fishing trip. His wife then ran the restaurant through the most difficult years of its existence.
In 1932, John Jacob bought and reopened the restaurant with his son, Wilbur. Wilbur’s sons, Jerry and Jim, soon got involved, and took over operations in 1973.
Jerry and Jim still lend a hand today, but Jerry’s son, Jon, took over ownership and operations last January.
Jon, the fourth generation of the Jacob family involved in the restaurant, began bussing tables at age 13 and serving tables during college. He graduated from Miami University with a degree in manufacturing engineering and business working at local company Diebold out of college.
The restaurant business was still calling him back. He enrolled at PA Culinary in Pittsburgh. Graduating valedictorian from restaurant management school in 1999, he worked in Colorado and Arizona before settling back in Canton in 2001.
“I got out of the family business for a while to use my engineering degree, only to realize that the restaurant business was in my blood,” Jon said. “When I had an opportunity to come back, I took full advantage of it.”
Jon’s 14-year-old son, Jonas, is now bussing tables at the restaurant.
Bender’s is known for its fresh seafood, according to Jon. Several times each week, it’s shipped directly from famed Foley Fish in Boston and is broiled, baked, grilled or sautéed. Eastern Halibut ala Foley and Camp Kagel Walleye are two favorites. Camp Kagel is where Jon’s great grandfather used to fish.
“We’ve been ordering from Foley’s for more than 50 years,” Jon said. “We may be their longest-standing customer.”
Ongoing relationships are vital for consistency in Bender’s offerings. The restaurant has been buying from Atlantic Food Distributors, Blue Ribbon Meats, Esber Beverage, Canton Hotel & Restaurant Supply, and other suppliers for decades.
Bender’s also features steaks, pasta, sandwiches, soups and salads.
Turtle soup has been a Bender’s classic for more than 60 years. Other favorites include Bender’s fries, tomato salad and Jerry’s famous mini chocolate peanut butter sundae.
Then there’s the raw horseradish and melba round tradition.
“I used butter on the melbas,” said Jerry. “A healthy alternative was fresh horseradish. I tried it and people loved it.”
A step inside Bender’s is a step back in time. But, according to Jon, dinner at Bender’s is anything but.
“We’re consistently looking to enhance our menu,” Jon said. “We keep our tried and true dishes, but we have a fresh, modern take on many classics.”
Executive Chef Ryan McCauley and the skilled kitchen team put forth contemporary presentations.
Jon is pleased to pair any menu offering with a fine wine from one of the most expansive wine cellars in Ohio. The wine collection includes more than 350 selections and more than 2,500 bottles. Bender’s has achieved Wine Spectator magazine’s Award of Excellence for more than 10 years.
Craft beer also is a staple at Bender’s, with an eye toward always having something unique. According to Jon, Bender’s was early to the craft game by serving Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in the ‘90s. The restaurant has been pleasing craft beer lovers since.
Wine and beer dinners occur regularly, so connoisseurs should keep an eye on Bender’s event schedule.
Bender’s employs 45 people, and does its best to make the restaurant a good place to work with an employee-friendly environment. That includes providing health benefits through local provider AultCare.
Bender’s has strong ties to Canton. Talks to form the NFL in 1920 and bring the Pro Football Hall of Fame to the city in 1962 took place there.
The restaurant gives back to the community, including the Canton Museum of Art, The Canton Palace Theatre, Refuge of Hope, St. Michael the Archangel Church, Walsh University and many other local fundraisers. Jon also serves as chairman of the board of the Downtown Canton Special Improvement District.
While some things may change in the restaurant business, one thing will remain the same — Bender’s will remain a reliable destination where those hungry in body and spirit can refuel in good taste and with good times.