Combining history and something strong to drink, writer Rich Grant continues his tales of following in the sipping footsteps of George Washington. Be sure to check out Part 1, here.
When last we left off…
What could be more fun than having a drink with the real George Washington? Fortunately, there are still many places where you can tread the same wood floorboards he once knew (or authentic reproductions) and heft a drink — or 13 — in honor of the father of our country. Here are a few more taverns George knew and loved.
When Samuel Fraunces opened his tavern in 1762, there were already 217 taverns in New York to serve just 13,000 people. Today, it is the only colonial tavern to survive and the oldest establishment serving food and drinks in New York.
Taverns such as this were a combination of an inn where you could stay and a public house where you could get a drink and meal. Both offerings were pretty dreadful. People shared beds and sat at simple communal tables, often arranged around a fireplace, with a mishmash of different flatware and glasses. Taverns were expensive because patrons had to pay not only for food and drink, but also for the candles used.
The average colonial of the day drank a staggering four gallons of hard liquor and 14 gallons of beer or cider a year.
When the British captured New York in 1776 and occupied it for seven years, they also took over the tavern. But on November 25, 1783, the day the war officially ended, the British departed, General Washington and his army marched in, and he and 185 friends gathered at Fraunces Tavern for a celebration dinner.
George had promised his wife Martha he would be home in Mount Vernon for Christmas, so after eight days of celebration in New York, it was time for one last farewell luncheon party – the last time, as far as any of them knew, that Washington and his army officers would ever see each other. Washington fully intended to retire to his home and become a farmer, far from public life.
For the last meal, the tavern laid out an impressive spread of cold meats, but the atmosphere was so sad, no one touched their food. The best known account, written by Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, and now on display in the restaurant’s museum, described the scene as General Washington entered the room.
“His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present…The General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, ‘With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you….I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.’
General Knox being nearest to him, turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance, but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner, every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.”
You can see the actual room where this emotional farewell took place upstairs in the Fraunces Tavern Museum. This is a gem of a museum. In Boston or Philadelphia it would be a huge attraction, but somehow in the overwhelming opportunities of New York, it gets lost. You might find, as I did on a Friday afternoon in December, that you have all two floors of it to yourself.
The Long Room, where the dinner took place, has been reconstructed as it might have looked on that afternoon. It is a typical colonial dining room, with wood table and chairs, candles and framed prints, and actually not that different from the one you can dine in downstairs.
The restaurant is a bit eclectic, with offerings from jambalaya to lobster tortellini, but for those desiring authentic, there are beef and chicken pot pies, Scotch eggs and something called George Washington’s Horseback (bacon, dates and almonds). The atmosphere? It could not be better. The main dining area (the Tallmadge Room, named after the Colonel) has a gorgeous room of wood tables lit by candles. There is a maze of corridors that lead to private dining areas and a bar with stuffed chairs, a roaring fireplace, and enough wood and prints to make George feel at home.
The biggest surprise, is the Porterhouse Brewing Company, which has taken over half the main floor and has 140 craft beers to try, including a range of craft beers all brewed in Ireland. It’s all wood, mirrors and brass with brightly lit bottles and little nooks carved out for private gatherings around communal tables. Other than the no smoking laws, it’s pretty certain that the Sons of Liberty could still gather here and talk about The Donald pretty much in the same way they once did about George III.
George Washington’s plantation home Mount Vernon was on the Potomac River, about nine miles from the town of Alexandria, Virginia. When he retired there as a farmer in 1797 after serving two terms as president, he still had lots of business in Alexandria, so he kept one of the original “town homes” on Cameron Street. Just down the block was his favorite dining spot, Gadsby’s Tavern. It’s still there.
The tavern was built in 1785 and an attached hotel was added in 1792. Today, half the property is maintained as a museum, showing exactly what the tavern was like in George’s day, and the other is a fine colonial restaurant, perhaps the best and most authentic tavern of all. Dishes include hot Virginia Smithfield ham biscuits, peanut soup, a Gentleman’s Pye with tender cuts of lamb in a savory red stew topped with whipped potatoes and pastry crust, and of course, a dish called George Washington’s Favorite: grilled breast of duck with scalloped potatoes, corn pudding and a port wine glace.
George dined here often, amidst similar wood tables, fireplaces and candles, and on one memorable occasion, February 11, 1799, he celebrated his “birthnight” with, as he expressed it, “an elegant ball and supper.” In his day, the calendar showed he was born on February 11, but subsequent changes to it have made the date February 22.
One of the great things about Gadsby’s Tavern is that while almost nothing has changed inside, not a whole lot has changed outside either. Historic downtown Alexandria is a huge neighborhood of brick sidewalks, cobblestone streets and gorgeous Federal brick homes and buildings, dozens and dozens of which have been repurposed to house bars, restaurants, art galleries, bookstores, cafes and one-of-a-kind boutiques. It’s the closest thing you’ll find in America to a London neighborhood like Chelsea. And there is history everywhere. Stop in the basement level Starbucks at 532 King Street, and you are in another tavern that was one of George’s favorites. There are haunted ghost tours, a half dozen historic home tours, and you can easily hop on a bike and ride the level nine-mile bike path from Alexandria to Mount Vernon, just as George frequently did on horseback.
And it’s just three miles from Mount Vernon to George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill, a re-creation of the 200-year-old buildings that George opened in 1797. When he switched from growing tobacco to wheat, his farm manager, a former distiller, suggested he start making whiskey. By 1798 the gristmill and distillery were completed, and a year later it was the largest distillery in the United States, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year. Today, they are (after a 200-year hiatus) producing rye whiskey to George’s original mash bill of 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley. The excellent museum and tour by costumed guides walks you through every step of how whiskey was made in 1798, and how it is still made the same way today. It’s a beautiful setting, with a waterwheel, operating gristmill, and scenic river location, that can’t look much different today than it did when George would ride over to inspect the operation.
Sadly, it was shortly after his final retirement, at the age of 68, that he rode all day in the cold and rain inspecting his farmlands and came home with snow in his hair. He went down with a cold and two days later, on December 14, 1799, passed away. But rather than the old man on the dollar bill, it’s better that we remember George as first in war, first in peace and first to the bar and dance floor. Just a few years prior to his death, on a tour of Charleston, South Carolina, he went to a ball in his honor and noted that evening in his diary that there were “at least 400 ladies, the number and appearances of which exceeded anything of the kind I have ever seen.” That’s the George Washington we should remember … and share a toast with.
IF YOU GO:
There are 171 surviving taverns from the American Revolution, though George did not visit them all. For a complete guide, seek out Taverns of the American Revolution by Adrian Covert, at www.Amazon.com.