Back in 2018, the Philadelphia Global Identity Project, a deep-think about how to brand the city, convened. Paul Martino, a Bucks County venture capitalist, was invited to participate.
“They said, ‘If you brought in a space alien [to town], other than ‘meds and eds,’ what would Philadelphia be known for?’” Martino said the other day. “I said, ‘Philly is the most passionate sports town in America and we have no marquee place to show that off.’”
Nearly five years later, Martino has that place — behind a literal marquee. Bankroll, a richly appointed sports bar with seating for about 350 in a variety of settings, opens officially Friday night at 1910 Chestnut St., the former Boyd Theater and the former Gap Outlet store next door.
Though Bankroll is not a sports-gaming parlor, it is built around a forthcoming app that will link patrons to sports and live-events partners “in ways that only we can,” said Padma Rao, Bankroll’s chief executive. The TV screens will show odds, lines, and spreads to make it a “seamless — and social — viewing experience for our customers.” She said Bankroll is in talks with several potential gaming-app partners.
It’s also a bold, new use for The Boyd, a circa-1928 Art Deco movie house less than two blocks from Rittenhouse Square, which had become a symbol of benign neglect as it sat empty after closing in 2002. Civic groups and preservationists rallied to save it, while plan after plan went nowhere.
Demolition began in 2014 for a new movie house that never happened. Then came a new developer, Pearl Properties, creating an apartment building called The Harper behind it. When it razed the Boyd’s ornate auditorium in 2015, Pearl agreed to maintain the facade, foyer, lobby, and some fixtures.
Bankroll, which Martino said cost $25 million to build, will be “defining how sports and live-event viewing is happening,” Rao said. This is not a standing-room venue.
The lobby, redesigned as a waiting room, includes a split-flap sign displaying sports quotes and opens into the showpiece Big Game Room, with dining tables, walls of TVs, and a bar that seats 16. Stairs leading to the mezzanine, with its sweeping view of the main room, are set in front of the Boyd’s original mirror.
Upstairs is a room dominated by the Boyd’s Art Deco glass window, as well as semiprivate theater-style environments and additional “living rooms.” In what was the Gap Outlet are private denlike spaces, each equipped with three dedicated screens, as well as a 100-seat dining room with its own bar and a private dining room.
Pricing has not been set for the private and semiprivate rooms.
Martino said the action would not be limited to sports. “It’s going to be fun to watch The Bachelorette finale,” he said. “A friend of ours from the NBA, during the presidential debates in 2020, said, ‘I wish Bankroll was open because I’d love to watch the debates there.’ I love that. That’s what we’re going after.”
Too often in these settings, Rao said, “it’s all about people staring at their phones. I want them staring at a screen together. I’m trying to put people back together and this is an environment in which that happens.”
Phones, though, will have an important role at Bankroll. Rao said the mobile app not only would allow customers to order food and drinks and pay their bill from the table, she said. “We intend to take that to a new level, for instance, enabling guests to order a drink to be ready when they arrive.”
Though patrons won’t make bets directly from Bankroll’s app, there are unspecified plans for the app to allow patrons “to interact with the community around them, whether they’re getting original content or access to experts,” Rao said.
Sports gaming is one of Martino’s areas of interest. He was among first investors in betting app FanDuel in 2014.
Chef Scott Swiderski, who put Buddakan on the dining map a quarter-century ago, oversees the kitchen, though it is being managed in-house, Rao said. Restaurateur Stephen Starr and staff “helped us design the menu and got us on our feet,” Rao said, a departure from a previously announced Starr partnership.
Management calls the menu “modern fine dining,” with raw bar offerings, steaks (featuring multiple Wagyu cuts), poultry and seafood, with nightly specials, and versions of game-day dishes, such as the Bankroll burger with colossal onion rings. Among the bar offerings will be cocktails, including martinis served from an ice block.
Bankroll has been open intermittently for the last several weeks, hosting a Super Bowl party to allow staff to work out kinks. Starting Friday, it will be open daily at 5 p.m.
Seating will be limited initially “because that’s the easiest way for us, capacity wise, to control it and keep the energy at the same time,” said Rao, an engineer and investor who had a hand in tech companies such as Grubhub before joining Martino at his firm, Bullpen Capital.
”The real truth in advertising will be March Madness,” Martino said. “There’s going to be a line out the door for this place on March 15.”
A brief history of the Bankroll property
The Boyd, a circa-1928 movie palace that later operated as a Sameric theater, closed in 2002 and fell into disrepair as various owners dithered over potential uses while historic-preservation advocates lobbied for it.
Pearl Properties, which bought the theater from Live Nation in 2014, demolished its auditorium in 2015 but maintained its facade for a redevelopment of the property, a block and a half from Rittenhouse Square.
The Boyd and adjacent properties stretch along 19th, Sansom, and Chestnut Streets and now include the high-rise known as The Harper, a Target store, and K’Far restaurant.
Bankroll went through a series of fits and starts, aside from the uncertainty of the pandemic that made planning a moving target. Groundbreaking was April 27, 2022.
“Padma and I laugh about it all the time,” Martino said. “This project probably should have died a half-dozen times in the last three or four years, but every time we found a way through whatever the impossible task was, whether it was a zoning delay, going over budget, issues getting the liquor license, you name it.” (The liquor license was approved Jan. 25 — more than three months after a state hearing. About a half-dozen residents of the William Penn House registered opposition, according to a transcript, while the Center City Residents’ Association expressed full-throated support after Bankroll had promised to be a good neighbor.)
Unlike most sports bars, reservations will be offered, though Rao and Martino said they won’t be a must. “We want the people in the neighborhood to be able to come in,” Rao said. “They’ve been walking by and peeking in.”