I loved this place. Past tense. This wonderful establishment closed last November due to the pandemic. Yet, another casualty and I am sorry to see it gone.
City Tavern sits near Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the Museum of the American Revolution. Its location was in the center of the Nation’s first capital and, at one point, the Colony’s most prosperous and influential city. It was charming, historic, significant, and the food was good. It’s significance owing to being a meeting place for the founding fathers and the British during Philadelphia’s occupation and as Washington’s pre-inaugural party site. The Tavern began as a private club for Philadelphia’s elite who financed the construction through the sale of subscriptions. The Tavern was the place for the arts, political debates, agricultural discussions, and business conversations. It was the center of business and politics for the young nation.
- In 1774, Paul Revere, exhausted after a long ride (not the British Are Coming!long ride, however), brought the news here that Boston Harbor had been closed
- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson often met here to enjoy “a feast of reason and a flow of soul”
- Newspapers from the world over were once sold here
- The dining room was a favorite haunt of Benjamin Franklin
I remember having lunch there with my daughter, Amanda, and BFF, Bob. We sat outside in the shade of the back patio while soaking in all the details of our first and last visit. I had the tofu parmesan and it was delightful and that’s when I learned about Benjamin Franklin introducing tofu to the Colonies. Franklin wrote to his friend, John Bartram, about the Chinese cheese called teu fu. Bartram, a botanist, and Franklin, a master gardener and gourmand, cultivated the dried Chinese Garavances seeds and used them in the universal Chinese cheese recipe that Franklin discovered in England. Franklin enjoyed discovering new plants and had journeyed from Canada to Florida doing so. Franklin also introduced Ginkgo Biloba and the last of the three original plants from China resides in the Bertram Gardens in South Philadelphia.
I recently discovered the City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine by Walter Staib. These recipes are America. Staib researched the cuisine of the colonies through David McCullough and Susan Stein of Monticello. He found that he needed to adapt some of the recipes to modern taste by keeping up with increased health awareness and codes of today. Staib was awarded the contract for City Tavern in 1994 after a six-month process which ended with congressional approval. He then went on to research the restoration of City Tavern through the National Parks Services library. The restoration included original colors, furniture, cooking and serving reproductions, and period costumes. Staib said “City Tavern is indeed more than a restaurant. It is a piece of history; a living culinary museum that offers diners an experience unavailable anywhere else-insight into America’s vast and underappreciated culinary heritage.” Indeed it does.
City Tavern Cookbook not only offers an extensive history of the tavern and Philadelphia, and it’s restoration, but a myriad of recipes of the Revolutionary period. The cookbook is organized for the modern reader by organizing it by modern standards. Dining was an event and was served in 2 to 4 courses. The course consisted of up to 24 dishes which were arranged in order of importance and served with ale or beer. Wine was served at the end of the meal with the sweets course. Appetizers were not offered during the revolutionary war period. Soups and stews were the one pot meal of the day. This offered an all day cooking method and tenderness for tougher cuts of meat. Salads, part of the first course, had seasonal vegetables incorporated and served alongside relishes. More difficult dishes would be left to the more experienced cooks who could gauge cooking times and temperatures by where the pans sat in the fire. Special pans were invented for more delicate cooking. Since meat was an expensive commodity, it was served in smaller portions and then the table was laden with side dishes of barley, rice, potatoes, and stuffing to supplement those smaller portions. The cookbook wrapped up the tour of the Early American table with sweets, beverages, and the pantry.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the tofu recipe in the cookbook, but there were other standouts. The Pork Madeira is a beautiful loin turned into a crown roast with a bacon and mushroom stuffing (p. 157). I also tried the Shrimp in Saffron Cream (p. 142), Spicy Corn Relish (p 121), Raspberry Trifle (p. 249), Pumpkin Pie (p. 262), Madeleines (p. 302) and Sally Lunn Bread (p. 318). I chose these recipes for their relative ease and flavors. All were very good except for the pumpkin pie which was made with a pumpkin puree and not the canned pumpkin pie mix. I found the flavor a tad too bland. I would like to try again with the pumpkin puree and experiment with the spice ratios.
If you are a history buff, or foodie and appreciate period recipes or American food, this is an excellent cookbook. The book is well laid out with easy to follow recipes and beautiful pictures that capture the dish. It was written with care and devotion by someone who understands the beginnings of American food and City Tavern. The restaurant may be permanently closed, but this cookbook offers a way of enjoying what once was. Also, Staib has a TV show which allows someone who appreciates these recipes and City Tavern another way to delight in his passion. Walter Staib is a four time Emmy Award winner and the host of A Taste of History which I caught on TV recently. I was thrilled to see historical cooking on TV especially from City Tavern. It was surprised to see that there are 11 seasons of episodes on his site www.atasteofhistory.org. He was cooking Beef Olives over an open fire with a spider pan. He made it look so effortless that I was ready to buy a spider pan to replicate his efforts. Here is the recipe: Beef Olives. City Tavern Cookbook is lovely and worth the purchase.