For a long time, I was reluctant to try Philadelphia’s City Tavern. I passed by it countless times as a teenager and during my college years. It was merely a landmark on my route to South Street or when I’d go to rock shows at the nearby Khyber Pass club (RIP). I thought of City Tavern as just another tourist trap. And while that is true to a certain extent, City Tavern has a lot more to offer than most give it credit for.
My husband and I somewhat spontaneously made reservations for lunch a few days before our visit to celebrate our anniversary. It seemed like a fun place to try.
History of City Tavern
The City Tavern is an authentic 18th century tavern. Sort of. The original City Tavern was built in 1773. It became a popular spot for the Founding Fathers while they were in Philadelphia during various events, including the very first Independence Day celebrations. But in 1834 the building was damaged by fire and later demolished in 1854. During the 1970s, it was decided that the City Tavern should be rebuilt in honor of the country’s bicentennial. Since then, it’s acted as a recreated tavern. When you walk through the door, you step back in time.
It was owner Chef Walter Staib that got me to change my mind and take a chance on City Tavern. The German-born chef has a weekly PBS cooking show, A Taste of History, that I started watching casually. The historical context that Staib and others — his pastry chef Diana Wolkow is another frequently seen face — bring to food is fascinating as well as educational.
It’s easy to understand why City Tavern appeals to out of towners. Staff dress in Colonial era outfits. There are pewter goblets for your water and a pewter bowl to keep your soup extra hot. If you don’t take it too seriously, it’s actually kind of fun.
City Tavern Eats
One of the most interesting and attractive aspects of the restaurant is the menu. Many of the recipes are said to be authentic to the 18th century. Take, for example, the tofu dish from Benjamin Franklin or Martha Washington’s chocolate cake or Thomas Jefferson’s favorite sweet potato and pecan rolls. There’s also a large selection of Revolutionary-era libations.
The food was good. The pepper pot soup — a Philadelphia specialty — wowed my husband. Yes, the bread was a little dry as any number of reviews on Yelp and the like will point out. But is that what the “authentic” recipe intended? It’s hard to know. I had the escalopes of veal which was like Jägerschnitzel but with Bearnaise sauce. It was rich but well balanced by a mix of vegetables, including summer squash and zucchini plus, somewhat oddly, two stalks of asparagus. While my husband had the daily special of meatloaf. But for him, it was that soup that was really the star of the meal. We went all out and splurged on dessert. I had a very cinnamon-heavy raspberry linzer torte with vanilla ice cream. My husband opted for the banana bread pudding. It should also be mentioned that the service, especially our waiter, was great.
Whether you’re a local or just in town for the day, City Tavern is a restaurant to experience.