Bars: the place where people come together to socialize simply as humans, where titles or suffixes are left at the door and worries and woes can be (temporarily) forgotten. They are a place where friendships are quickly made, and occasionally history too. Of all the public spaces out there, bars and taverns are probably the only ones where all this can and has taken place for centuries.
Here are five of the oldest American taverns still in working existence, which also happen to be homes of historic events, that helped shape this country.
1) White Horse Tavern, Newport, RI (built 1652, became a tavern in 1673)
Frances Brinley built the establishment in 1651 but sold it to William Mayes, Sr. who expanded it and turned it into a tavern. It became the meeting place for the Colony’s General Assembly, Criminal Court and City Council. His son, William Mayes, Jr. was a notorious pirate who the locals favored and the British hated. He ran the tavern until Jonathan Nichols took over and gave it the name it still carries today. The Tavern played a roll during the Revolutionary War as quarters for British soldiers and Tories during the British occupation and Battle of Rhode Island. It was restored from 1954 to 1957 by the Preservation Society of Newport County, sold in 1981 to O.L. Pitts, then turned over to a Newport native who became the 6th owner in 350 years.
Besides the history, White Horse’s architecture maintains its colonial Newport aesthetic, with gambrel roof, clapboard walls, plain pediment doors and inside, “its giant beams, small stairway hard against chimney, tiny front hall and cavernous fireplaces are the very essence of 17th Century American architecture.” If nothing else, put on your best business casual and go for the well-prepared courses, like lobster mac n’ cheese or beef wellington.
2) Fraunces Tavern, NYC (built 1671, became a tavern in 1762)
Possibly the most filled with historical events of all taverns and bars in USA, it was originally built as a house before the current building was constructed in 1719. At the time, its architecture was known for its superb quality and size, the yellow bricks having been imported from the Dutch Republic. Originally called The Queen’s Head, the Fraunces Tavern was a meeting place for a secret society and site of a forced public apology by a British naval captain, which ultimately led to patriots dressed as American Indians dumping tea into New York Harbor. The New York Chamber of Commerce was the result of a meeting in the Tavern in 1768.
During the Revolutionary War, a cannon went through the roof and it was the location of negotiations to ensure that all “American property,” or former slaves who had been emancipated by the British, were to stay on American soil. After the war, Washington bade farewell to his officers at the Tavern. It then was partially used as offices for the nations first Congressmen before the capital of the country was moved to Philadelphia.
The original architectural details have been repeatedly rebuilt, due to several fires, to the point where no knowledge exists of how the original interior of the building looked. In 1975 a bomb went off inside the tavern, killing four people and injuring dozens. Today, it is a popular landmark, museum, brewery, restaurant and bar, still serving President Washington’s summer favorite, Chicken Pie.
3) McSorley’s Old Ale House, NYC (1854)
Opened and later bought by Irish immigrant John McSorley, this bar survived Prohibition, still serves only two kinds of ale- light and dark- which are always served in two mugs, has a saw-dust covered floor, and boasts only one bathroom for men. Their motto was “Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies” after prohibition ended when most establishments began allowing women. It wasn’t until a major law suit that women were allowed inside in 1970, including Dorothy Kirwan, the owner herself. Keeping with a promise she made to her father, she never entered the place, except during closed hours on Sundays, even after all women were free to enter. Wishbones, covered in decades of dust, adorn the bar and are evidence of lives once lived: soldiers of WWII left the bones prior to deployment with hopes of returning home to remove the wishbone. Dozens still rest there, completely untouched. A place often frequented by the working class, politicians and poets alike, E.E. Cummings wrote “Sitting in McSorley’s” in 1925.
McSorley’s has not changed its appearance or attitude of “Be Good or Be Gone” since its earliest days and is now run by the third family to own the bar. If you’re looking for a tasty, homemade Irish meal, don’t go to McSorley’s. Serving plates of sliced cheese with saltine crackers, sharp mustard and raw onions, or sandwiches with hunks of liverwurst and (you guessed it) raw onions, these meals only go down with a significant amount of ale.
4) The (Old) ’76 House, Tappan, NY (built 1668, became a tavern in 1755)
With its original Dutch architecture being the oldest public example in America, The ’76 House was a common meeting place for patriots during the Revolutionary War and held Major John Andre, the war’s most notorious British spy, as prisoner where George Washington questioned him on his plans to overtake West Point. In 1800 it began to run fully as both a tavern and an inn and has continued to do so, uninterrupted, making it America’s longest running establishment of that nature.
In regards to its structure, several rooms were added on in the 18th century and in 1897 the entire building was renovated and enlarged. When the tavern was bought in 1987 by its now present owner, extreme care was taken to restore the property. The poor foundation had caused the floor and ceiling joists to sag so concrete was poured and the joists were replaced with others from a barn in Ontario of the same era and the floorboards with similar ones from a Pennsylvania schoolhouse.
Today, the restaurant serves a variety of gourmet meals on linen tablecloths. Try the alligator empanadas to start or a bowl of the Famous Onion Soup Lafayette; made from the same recipe which was served in celebration of the British evacuation.
5) Heinhold’s First and Last Chance, Oakland, CA (1883)
Appearing nearly exactly the same today as when her doors first opened, this iconic bar was built from the timbers of an old whaling ship. Originally used as a bunkhouse for watermen, it soon became a hangout. During Prohibition, Alameda was a dry town and the ferry between there and Oakland stopped just outside the bar, offering passengers one last chance for a drink. Then when servicemen began shipping out of the Port of Oakland, the name became official.
Possibly most known for author Jack London being a loyal patron, London studied on the same tables used today as a boy and later received money from owner J.M. Heinhold to attend University of California. Many of London’s stories were inspired by listening to the adventurous tales watermen told there. The Saloon is mentioned several times in one of his novels.
To this day, gas lamps light the saloon and the original stove is still in working order. Heinhold’s is filled with all sorts of historical mementos, including money with soldier’s signatures, left to spend upon their return. The slanted floor is a permanent result of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The clock on the wall still tells the time of when the earthquake struck, having never been re-started.
If you’re looking for food, pick something up at the farmer’s market next door and enjoy it with one of seven beers on tap or go for something harder. Remember, Heinhold’s isn’t about the menu, because to enter the establishment is to step back in history.