Our Founding Fathers, those revolutionaries who earned Philadelphia the nickname “Birthplace of America,” sure knew how to party.
Take the 50 men who gathered Sept. 14, 1787, to honor George Washington. The bar tab included 76 bottles of claret, 59 of Madeira, 22 of porter, 12 of beer, eight of whiskey and eight of hard cider. Oh, and add to that 14 “large bowls” of punch.
Ben Franklin reported the heady list in the society column of his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.
There was huge cause for celebration. On that Friday evening 230 years ago, Washington and Franklin, plus fellow rebels such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, were just three days away from signing the U.S. Constitution at Independence Hall.
The party took place a short stroll away at City Tavern, an inn that John Adams, our second president, described as “the most genteel tavern in America.”
Razed as an eyesore in the 1850s, City Tavern has risen from the rubble relatively recently, a faithful re-creation of the pub but with modern conveniences such as electricity and indoor plumbing. Its driving force, chef Walter Staib, focuses on authenticity, and his restaurant is particularly popular with fans of his PBS program, “A Taste of History.”
Philadelphia will welcome the Museum of the American Revolution later this month, and visitors to the new attraction should make time to step back in time with a candlelight meal at City Tavern served by staff in Colonial garb.
The museum opens April 19, the 242nd anniversary of the “shot heard round the world” and the first battles of the American War of Independence. While Philadelphia’s Center City is brimming with historic buildings and important museums, the bloody, eight-year conflict that led to freedom has been a footnote — until now.
“If you think of (the existing attractions) as sort of the New Testament, what’s been missing is the Old Testament that explains how you got to that place,” he said. “It reaches back in time and explains what happened.”
The museum boasts the interactive elements expected by younger visitors. The tale of the 1777 Battle of Brandywine is shared not only with a high-tech video of charging British Redcoats, but also with the smell of gunpowder and the sight of smoke wafting through the air.
Stephenson, though, is proudest of a static exhibit displayed behind glass in another auditorium: the large linen tent that was Gen. George Washington’s retreat. It’s one of just two still-surviving tents from the Revolutionary War.
“Headquarters might be in a tavern or a home, but … he would have this tent set up in the yard,” the curator explained. “This was the only private space that Washington had.
“If there was a place where he shed a tear, bowed his head or laughed or smiled, it was probably under that canvas,” he added. “This was the first Oval Office.”
Stephenson, who studied early American history for his doctorate, shares his passion with chef Staib, an immigrant from Germany who arrived in Chicago in 1969 and became fascinated by the early years of his adopted homeland.
“Once the bug hits you, you can’t let it go,” Staib said.
The tavern is National Park Service property, so Staib has access to historical documents from which he’s drawn a wealth of information about what people ate and how they prepared their food in the late 18th century.
Just as cooks did more than 200 years ago, Staib locally sources most of his food. Fresh fish is delivered twice a day. Preservatives were unheard of in Colonial times, so Staib doesn’t use them either.
Americans’ tastes apparently haven’t radically changed over the centuries. The entrees seem fairly familiar: braised rabbit in mushroom-red wine sauce ($24.95), medallions of venison in rosemary-bourbon-mushroom sauce ($34.95) and turkey pot pie ($21.95). The pie is topped with puffed pastry from a recipe Staib found in a Colonial cookbook.
The bread board includes pecan gingerbread, a favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s. For dessert, guests can indulge in chocolate mousse cake made from Martha Washington’s recipe. All the breads and cakes are baked at the tavern.
“We embrace not just the food but the 18th century beverage culture,” Staib noted. He’s particularly proud of his four “Ales of the Revolution,” first brewed by some of our country’s founders.
For $15.50, guests can sample Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce (light on hops), Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Ale (a pale ale with citrus notes), Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 Tavern Ale (medium body, unfiltered) and George Washington’s Tavern Porter (a rich, dark brew). Full glasses are $8.50.
The ales are made by Philly’s Yards Brewing Co. (www.yardsbrewing.com).
“We lowered the alcohol content because, to be historically correct, they would have been much more powerful,” Staib said of the originals, which would have been 14 or 15 percent alcohol. Most beers today are 4 or 5 percent alcohol.
“The water was undrinkable,” Staib said by way of explanation for the whopping amounts of booze consumed back in the day. He added that our forebears would easily have been able to drink modern-day Americans under the table.
“We couldn’t hold up,” he said.
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.
IF YOU GO
City Tavern: Open daily for lunch and dinner. True to Colonial times, dinner service begins at 3 p.m. The tavern is at 138 S. Second St., Philadelphia; 215-413-1443; www.citytavern.com.
The Museum of the American Revolution: 101 S. Third St., Philadelphia; 215-253-6731; www.amrevmuseum.org. Starting April 19, the museum will be open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with longer hours in the summer.
Information on Philadelphia’s Historic District can be found online: www.visitphilly.com/historic-philadelphia-district.