I walked determinedly along Walnut Street, passing the row house where Dolley Madison lived with her first husband, John Todd, the inviting 18th-century garden, and the Polish American Cultural Center. “Sorry, not now,” I thought. “I’m on my way to have lunch at City Tavern!”
My daily three square meals are a big deal, and that day’s second square had pride of place on my itinerary for my first day in Philadelphia. The brick building on the corner of Walnut and Second Streets is an exact reproduction of the tavern where big Revolutionary-era names like John Adams and George Washington convened to discuss current events.
The Colonial-era tavern was a town’s central meeting place, where people could catch up with friends, conduct business, talk politics, play cards, share a meal, and purchase tickets to concerts and plays. In 1770, over 50 Philadelphia gentlemen pooled their money to create a tavern based on the very best examples in England. Three years later, City Tavern was open for business. The elegant three-story building was designed in the latest architectural style. Its location, just blocks from the port and the Delaware River, helped it become the finest tavern in Philadelphia, serving food from around the world.
In May 1774, Paul Revere arrived at City Tavern to announce the closing of the port of Boston. Describing his arrival in Philadelphia for the first time on August 29, 1774, John Adams wrote that he had “a supper…as elegant as ever was laid on a table” at City Tavern, “the most genteel tavern in America.”
In September and October of that year, delegates met there before and after sessions of the First Continental Congress. From 1776 to 1777, Continental and British troops held military courts-martial and housed prisoners of war there. The tavern was not only temporary headquarters for George Washington in August 1777, but also the location of a banquet for Washington as he made his way to New York City in April 1789 to become the nation’s first president.
City Tavern was damaged by fire in 1834 and was demolished in 1854. As part of Philadelphia’s bicentennial celebration, the National Park Service rebuilt the tavern on the original site in 1975 and reopened it for business in 1976.
Entering City Tavern, you’ll find the Subscription Room on your right, where tavern-goers read magazines and newspapers from around the world. Across the hall, merchants, ship captains and businessmen convened in the Coffee Room to trade goods and share import/export news.
The walls are painted in the tavern’s original colors, the rooms are decorated in reproduction furniture and fabrics, and wait staff are dressed in handmade 18th-century attire. Tables are set with pewter goblets and candlesticks, and china plates based on a 1793 pattern. Colonial-style glassware is imported from Italy or hand-blown in West Virginia.
City Tavern provides its visitors with a culinary experience inspired by the customs and foods of 18th-century Colonial America. The fare is the result of Chef Walter Staib’s thorough research on the cuisine and culinary customs of the day, including menus from the original tavern. Fresh produce and meats are delivered daily, breads and pastries are baked each morning, and libations like ales, porters, shrubs and spruces are made following Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George and Martha Washington’s original recipes.
I perused the midday fare lineup, remembering my predilection for Colonial turkey pot pie, made with turkey, mushrooms, early peas, red potatoes, sherry cream sauce and flaky pastry crust baked in a pewter casserole and accompanied by egg noodles. But then again, there was the handmade veal and herb sausage, “Münchner style,” with fried onions, mashed potatoes and Pennsylvania Dutch-style sauerkraut. Perhaps I should order something different like salmagundi, an 18th-century classic salad of greens, ham, turkey, chicken, salami, cheddar cheese, hard-boiled egg and olives. Or would I be really adventurous and try the fried tofu breaded with Sally Lunn, spinach, seasonal vegetables, sautéed tomatoes and herbs with linguine? After all, Benjamin Franklin had sent some soybeans and a recipe for making “Tau-fu” in a January 1770 letter he wrote to his friend John Bartram, the noted Philadelphia botanist. Finally, at my waiter’s suggestion, I settled on the beef pie turnover, a hearty, exceptional choice of twice-cooked beef, simmered with mushrooms and herbs in a rich red wine sauce, baked in puff pastry and served with sweet and sour cabbage. It was served with slices of Sally Lunn bread, a round, yeasty, golden loaf that’s more like a cake; Anadama bread, made with molasses and cornmeal; and Thomas Jefferson’s favorite — sweet potato and pecan biscuits.
Around the corner from City Tavern, see Old Original Bookbinder’s, a seafood house established by Samuel Bookbinder in 1893. Later, the restaurant was known for the bell which Bookbinder’s wife, Sarah, rang to let the neighborhood know that lunch was ready, its raw bar that rested on worn Walnut Street cobblestones, and its ship’s-wheel light fixtures. While seafood was its specialty, the restaurant also served traditional Old Philadelphia cuisine, like snapper [turtle] soup, Philadelphia pepperpot soup, hot slaw and fried oysters paired with chicken salad, which you can recreate at home with recipes from The Old Original Bookbinder’s Restaurant Cookbook, by Charlotte Adams, and The Book of Lost Recipes: The Best Signature Dishes from Historic Restaurants Rediscovered, by Jaya Saxena. After bankruptcy closed the original restaurant in 2009, the historical destination reopened in 2015 as The Olde Bar. The Old Original Bookbinder’s food division is a standalone company that offers a line of seafood soups, sauces and seasonings.
City Tavern serves lunch and dinner 365 days a year. For more, see City Tavern Cookbook: 200 Years of Classic Recipes From America’s First Gourmet Restaurant; The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes From the Birthplace of American Cuisine; and A Feast of Freedom: Tasty Tidbits From the City Tavern, all by Walter Staib. City Tavern’s chef also produces “A Taste of History,” a PBS television series that explores America’s culinary beginnings.