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Max Tucker, an owner of Ladder 15, has died at age 40

Mr. Tucker was a husband and father of two who also helped to create Mad River Bar & Grille. The cause of death has not been determined, according to the city Medical Examiner's Office.

Max Tucker, a partner in Ladder 15 and other bar-restaurants.
Max Tucker, a partner in Ladder 15 and other bar-restaurants.Read moreCourtesy of RYAN TUCKER

Ryan Tucker recalls meeting her husband, Max, 16 years ago when she was 20 and working at Bleu Martini, an Old City cocktail bar. He was fairly new in town as part-owner of the nearby Mad River Bar & Grille, then a new bar-restaurant around the corner. “He was the smartest man I’ve ever known,” she said.

Max Tucker, 40, who with two partners owned the popular Ladder 15 bar-restaurant in Center City as well as two restaurants in Baltimore, died unexpectedly Sunday, Nov. 14, in Philadelphia. A spokesperson for the city Medical Examiner’s Office on Friday said the cause of death had not yet been determined.

Ryan Tucker has spent the last few days receiving what she called “an outpouring of love from so many people — so many stories from people he encouraged and helped and guided throughout their careers. He loved what he did and loved the people, and it shows.”

“Max loved the city of Philadelphia. Max loved this industry. Most of all, Max loved the people,” said his twin brother, Jeff. “He built an extremely loyal staff that were truly family. It was in this city where he had his greatest success — his son, Lincoln, and daughter, Zoe.”

His older brother, Eric, said: “Few people made a new zip code feel like a home and a new set of neighbors feel more like a family faster than Max did. He brought joy to virtually everyone he touched and needed to save some for himself.”

His parents, Susan and Stuart, wrote in a statement that they couldn’t be more proud of him and said they were “so grateful for the 40 years we had him in our lives.”

Rob Wasserman, owner of the Rittenhouse restaurants Rouge, Twenty Manning, and Charley Dove, remembered Mr. Tucker as “a dear friend whose life was cut way too short.”

Mr. Tucker’s wife described him as a “Jeopardy! savant.” The couple, their children, and other family members routinely taped the show and watched it together. “He’d always get the answer,” Ryan Tucker said. “We would say that he had watched it [earlier] and was cheating. I don’t know who else has so many useless facts in his head.” He also was known for his dad jokes, “which were actually funny.”

Mr. Tucker, a native of Lincolnwood, Ill., and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, joined partners Mike Mastellone and John Durkin at Mad River Bar & Grille, which had opened in 1998 on New York City’s Upper East Side. In 2004, Mr. Tucker moved to Philadelphia to open a Mad River in the former Middle East Restaurant at 126 Chestnut St. in Old City.

Mad River became one of the more spirited spots in Old City during its eight-year run, which ended in 2012 after a brief transformation into a crab house called Craft & Claw.

In 2008, Mr. Tucker and partners opened a second location, on Main Street and Shurs Lane in Manayunk. That location, featuring live bands playing on its deck overlooking the Manayunk Canal, was a popular gathering spot and hosted a seasonal, live music festival called Riverpalozza. “The Riv” closed in May 2020 when it became clear that the pandemic had sunk the bar industry. The New York location, on the Upper East side, also closed.

The partners’ most enduring Philadelphia project is Ladder 15, which opened in 2009 at 1528 Sansom St. in a restored Philadelphia firehouse and is a popular stop on the Rittenhouse bar circuit.

Visitation, followed by a service and burial, will begin at 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 22, at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, 225 Belmont Rd., Bala Cynwyd.