Among the old city Philadelphia restaurants, City Tavern Philadelphia stands out not only for being the oldest tavern in Philly but for Chef Walter Staib’s recipes which pay homage to colonial-era cooking. Established in 1773, when Philadelphia was the pre-eminent city in colonial America, the City Tavern was the haunt of everyone that mattered in that day and age. When you are visiting the historical aspects of old city Philadelphia, such as the Museum of the American Revolution or the Liberty Bell, visiting the City Tavern is a perfect way to round out your introduction to 18th century Philadelphia. Although the food at the City Tavern Philadelphia is inspired by 18th century colonial fare, the City Tavern’s menu is diverse and suited for people with dietary restrictions as well as children.
About City Tavern Philadelphia
The city Tavern Philadelphia is the oldest tavern in Philadelphia. Lots of famous names you know from history class ate, drank and stayed here, such as George Washington, John Adams and Paul Revere.
City Tavern History
The City Tavern was built as an elegant establishment by the great and (possibly) good of Philadelphia’s citizens. Meant to convey that Philadelphia was the top city in Colonial America, the City Tavern Philly had a bar, a coffee room, 2 kitchens, two dining rooms, meeting rooms, a ballroom and lodging..
During the years before the American Revolution, the City Tavern became a hub for the most eminent of the colonists where they could discuss the ongoing issues with Britain. For example, during the First Continental Congress, George Washington stayed in lodging at the City Tavern.
When Philadelphia was occupied by the British during the American Revolution, prisoners of war were housed at the City Tavern.
After the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers congregated at the City Tavern when they met for the Constitutional Convention.
After this heyday in the 18th century, the City Tavern lost its allure to newly formed hotels in Philadelphia. It was demolished in 1854.
City Tavern Philadelphia History – A New Beginning
Saved by the National Park Service!
In 1975 the National Park Service rebuilt the City Tavern faithfully copying the original. It was open in time for America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976.
Enter Chef Walter Staib. Chef Walter wins congressional approval to be the operator of the City Tavern Philadelphia in 1994. An Emmy Award winning TV presenter (for A Taste of History), chef and culinary historian, who better to oversee the oldest tavern in Philadelphia?
Chef Staib has also written 6 cookbooks, including The City Tavern cookbook and A Taste of History cookbook.
As if he is not busy enough, Chef Staib is at the restaurant often overseeing the kitchen which is how I got to meet him!
The City Tavern Menu
When we went for lunch my kids didn’t know why the City Tavern menu said “Mid-Day Fare”. Although the words on the City Tavern lunch menu, may have been old world English, the food on offer was surprisingly diverse.
There was something for everyone, including vegetarians and gluten-free options. When I first mentioned trying a colonial restaurant in Philadelphia, I was met with skepticism by my family. My husband had nearly convinced the kids to go to JJ Bootlegger’s, another one of the old city Philadelphia restaurants nearby, primarily because he wanted to try moonshine and the kids wanted tacos. I got to enjoy the feeling of smugness when we all decided we like the City Tavern in the end!
Walter Staib Recipes
Chef Staib has created a menu inspired by 18th century colonial cuisine. Yes, it’s farm to table but that would have totally been an authentic colonial experience. The wait staff are also in full colonial gear adding to the time warp feeling of the place.
His original source material is the writings from Colonial America. For example, the sweet potato and pecan biscuits above were supposedly Thomas Jefferson’s favourite.
Interestingly the Sally Lunn bread (middle) was based on the Sally Lunn bread first found in the spa town of Bath, England in 1780. They were nowhere as decadently sugary as the Sally Lunn biscuits we tried in Bath. Apparently this type of Sally Lunn bread was served with clotted cream sort of like scones are served today for afternoon tea.
The third of the bread trio was called Anadama Bread – cornmeal sweetened with molasses. I have to say I preferred cornbread like we have it now. Overall, colonial bread was not as sweet as today’s bread.
City Tavern Lunch Menu
I was totally tempted by the West Indies Pepper Pot Soup on the City Tavern lunch menu but it was such a brutally hot day that I decided I couldn’t cope with habanero pepper! The corn chowder I chose instead was excellent – creamy with chunks of potato.
Before you think the pepper pot soup couldn’t possibly be Colonial fare, Chef Walter’s The City Tavern Cookbook explains that it is! Sadly it is related to the story of slavery and the triangular trade with the West Indies. Ships from the Caribbean would bring spices and slaves to Philadelphia so colonists were familiar with these flavours.
In fact, during the long brutal winter at Valley Forge, George Washington had his cook make this soup to feed the starving troops. Presumably the numbness of their tongues from the habanero would take their minds of their frozen numb shoeless feet.
You can find the pepper pot soup recipe in the City Tavern cookbook. Can you believe that the pepper pot recipe that is more than 300 years old?!
I also scoffed at the fried tofu entree because it couldn’t possibly be colonial era food. According to the City Tavern lunch menu, however, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter in 1770 on how to make tofu!
My husband was thrilled with the choice of beers (a compensation for not getting his moonshine).. We tried a sampler of the four different choices named after the Founding Father whose recipe was used – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. He preferred the dark chocolatey taste of George Washington’s Porter while I preferred the lighter taste of Alexander Hamilton’s Ale.
You can buy Founding Father beer to take away too. Relive your City Tavern Philly experience in the comfort of your own home!
Kids Menu at City Tavern Philly
There’s a kid’s version of the City Tavern Philadelphia menu, too. The closest you get to colonial food is probably the Turkey Pot Pie. We were told the cheese and meat dish is a lot like lasagna. My unadventurous kids went for chicken strips and fish and chips.
My kids were more daring on their drinks choices though and both ordered a raspberry ‘shrub’. Colonial-era shrub was a fruit juice vinegar sweetened with sugar (and occasionally spiked with alcohol like rum). The shrub my kids had was made with club soda and they liked it!
Visiting City Tavern Philadelphia PA
The City Tavern Philadelphia is a popular restaurant and reservations are encouraged especially on the weekends and evenings. You can get City Tavern coupons at the nearby Visitors’ Center in Philadelphia.
Want a second opinion? Read the excellent TripAdvisor Reviews of the City Tavern Philadelphia!
The City Tavern is located at 138 S. 2nd Street in Philadelphia. It is open most days for lunch starting at 11:30 and dinner from 3 pm (harkening back to an older time when people ate earlier so that they could get home during daylight).
It’s right across the street from Welcome Park (which used to be the site of the city home of the Penn family, founders of Pennsylvania). It is also conveniently near other historic attractions in Philadelphia, such as the Museum of the American Revolution and the Liberty Bell.
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