An excellent way to cap off the colonial experience in Philadelphia is to eat at the City Tavern Restaurant, which is just a short walk from the Ben Franklin Post Office and Printing Press. The City Tavern is a re-creation of Philadelphia’s historic tavern, which opened its doors in 1773 and was a center of the city’s society and political life in the late 18th century. The tavern was rebuilt by the National Park Service and is now owned and operated by Chef Walter Staib, an award-winning chef and author. The tavern now operates as it would have during the American Revolution so that patrons can enjoy a ‘taste of the past.’
We first heard of City Tavern when we visited the Betsy Ross House and picked up a flyer touting its award-winning kids menu. We were skeptical that the tavern would be a tourist spot, especially when our guest reviewer, a life-long Philadelphia resident, told us that she had never been before. We were all pleasantly surprised by how not-touristy the restaurant felt, and how family friendly it turned out to be.
With five kids (ages 2, 4, 6, 10 and 13) in tow, we were initially hesitant to keep our reservations when we climbed the steps to the colonial building and into the formal foyer. The friendly staff in colonial garb quickly dispelled our fears that we were either under-dressed or too active for such a beautiful restaurant. Led upstairs into a huge room, we had enough space near a large fireplace so that the kids could be kids without disturbing other diners. The large pewter mugs of water and lit candles on the wooden table added to the colonial ambiance and the waitress, also in colonial costume, was happy to answer questions posed by the younger diners. Also contributing to the colonial feel was the harpist playing 18th century tunes on the bottom floor where the adequate modern restrooms are located. In retrospect, we think the formal surroundings brought out the best manners in the kids who really seemed engaged in the experience.
The Children’s Dinner Menu (available for children age 12 and under) is truly a mix of colonial and modern fare. Adventurous eaters were delighted with the colonial-inspired meals. The star was the Turkey Pot Pie – a huge portion with a delicious thick crust and filling with large chunks of turkey. The six year old ate it all, proclaiming it to be “the greatest meal ever!” While the adult reviewer may not agree that it was the greatest ‘ever,’ it was delicious and the adult portion was large enough to take half home. The Fish and Chips, an English favorite of the times, was lightly battered and tasty, though the chips were typical modern French fries. The children’s portion of the Meat and Cheese pie (a colonial version of lasagna) was eaten so quickly and with such gusto that the adult reviewer did not get a chance to taste it; the ten year old proclaimed it ‘fine, but not the best he’s ever had.’ Picky eaters may opt for the more familiar dishes: cornmeal crusted chicken tenders, grilled chicken breast with buttered noodles, and grilled ham and cheese. The children also enjoyed their historically accurate drinks of root beer and apple cider; adults could order wassail, a spiced drink available during winter, which hearkens back to the old European custom of toasting the season (“wassailing”) between Christmas and New Years.
The adult menu ranged from the historical dishes such as medallions of venison, wiener schnitzel and braised rabbit to more current fare such as New York strip steak and jumbo shrimp. There was even a fried tofu dish with the explanation that in a 1770 letter to John Bartram, Benjamin Franklin included instructions on how to make tofu. The adults’ meals were good, not great, but were more than made up for by the 18th century atmosphere.
The only disappointment was that while the portions were large, the prices seemed to be geared toward the tourist market: adult entrees ranged from $17.95 to $32.95 with the general price point of $27.00; kids meals are $12.95 each. The bill for one salad, two adult meals, three children’s meals was approximately $140.00 including tip and several beverage refills (no alcohol).
Before going, parents may consider having their children read the illustrated children’s book “A Feast of Freedom: Tasty Tidbits from the City Tavern” by Chef Walter Staib and Jessica Bell (available on amazon.com; $15.95). The illustrated children’s book describes the role the City Tavern played in Philadelphia’s social, economic and political life over the years. The book contains some interesting historical facts about the tavern (the owner was actually a British loyalist at the time of Revolution) but the text is dense for younger readers. This would be an appropriate book for strong 3rd grade readers and older.
All in all, this was a wonderful glimpse into life in 18th century Philadelphia and a great complement to a day learning about colonial life.