Like most frequent travellers, I eat in a lot of restaurants. I try (not always successfully) to avoid tourist establishments, but I only write about those places that catch my attention in some way. So why would I choose to write about a reconstructed historic building with staff in period dress? The answer is that the City Tavern in Philadelphia seems to have achieved the impossible: a themed restaurant that feels authentic and not at all touristy.
A Haunt of the Founding Fathers
Part of the experience is understanding the history of the building. First opened in 1773, the City Tavern was a grand building where men would gather to discuss business and read the newspapers, and where the Philadelphia elite would assemble for dining and dancing. This is the place where America’s Founding Fathers gathered; where Paul Revere delivered the news that Boston Harbour was closed; and where George Washington stayed en route to his inauguration.
The City Tavern caught fire in the 19th century and was later demolished. However, the establishment of the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia provided the opportunity for reconstruction. The new building opened in 1976, in time for the bicentenary of the American Revolution. The architects used drawings and other documents to make it as far as possible an exact replica of the original tavern.
Visiting the City Tavern in Philadelphia
As soon as we walked through the door it became apparent that this was no ordinary inn. A harp was playing, and the staff were all dressed in 18th century clothes. There was a formal – and very smart looking – dining room, but we chose to sit in the bar. Its period furnishings made it appear much as it might have done in the Founding Fathers’ day.
The bar was in different sections, so that businessmen and politicians would have been able to choose between a private corner or a larger space for more open discussion. With the low light and the period ambiance I could almost feel that I was back in the 18th century.
An 18th Century Menu from Chef Walter Staib
But what makes the City Tavern remarkable is the food. It is managed by chef Walter Staib – a culinary historian, consultant and TV personality (US readers may be familiar with his programme A Taste of History). In keeping with the theme of the place the menu (both food and drink) is based on recipes that would have been familiar to the restaurant’s earliest customers.
We ate shrimps wrapped in crispy bacon, and colonial turkey pie, accompanied by freshly baked bread, all from traditional recipes. I even had a tofu dish – to my surprise the menu informed me that “In a 1770 letter to Philadelphia’s John Bartram, Benjamin Franklin included instructions on how to make tofu”.
We enjoyed our meal so much that we went back again the following day. I could see why John Adams, the second president of the US, once described the City Tavern as “the most genteel tavern in America”.