- Historic Sites
America’s most impressive historic survivors just may be our taverns—because they’ve had to do it all on their own, by offering you exactly the same kind of comfort they did your great-grandfather
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
For many—perhap’s most—Americans, their first visit to a tavern is a rite of passage, a bridge between youthful days of sneaking illicit booze in a friend’s basement and the grownup pleasures of a social drink in good company. Others, however, find their tentative steps into the world of the American public house to be an encounter with history, a chance to commune with ghosts: the traditions, legends, and, in some cases, the very locales that have played a vital role in the development of this nation. For them the appreciation of a good tavern encompasses much more than the drinks and the food it offers, and the quest for the next great place gets under the skin.
What signals that you’ve entered an authentic American tavern, if not age or ambiance? Simply its character.
During more than a decade of traveling America seeking interesting food and drink and lodging, we have had the good fortune to come across some of the country’s most distinctive taverns. Their décor may be scarred hardwood beams from another century or kitsch that seems to be from another planet; their clientele can range from regulars who mark their barstools not with signs or plaques but with sharp glances at unwitting interlopers, to a transient crowd barely out of college; and their wares can run from a full menu with a wide selection of beers, wines, and spirits to a single draft tap and a jar of pickled eggs. So what signals to us that we have just entered an authentic American tavern, if not age or ambiance? Simply its character.
Our nation was born in taverns. In colonial America they were places where people would go not only to eat and drink and pass the time but to argue the issues of the day—more and more vehemently as the gulf with Great Britain widened. Although food was served, these inns were not really restaurants. True dining establishments did not come to America until Delmonico’s opened its doors in Lower Manhattan in 1827, and the first tavern was likely established in the New World not long after the first house was built. And while many had rooms to let, they were certainly not hotels. The American tavern was primarily a place where people sought companionship, cemented friendships, made business contacts, and found respite from a harsh environment.
And so it remains in the year 2003. In most of the taverns we visit, like Jasper Murdock’s Alehouse in Vermont’s historic Norwich Inn, we find full menus (in Murdock’s, an epicurean one), but dining is not a genuine tavern’s raison d’être. For that you must turn to the bar and most frequently to the draft taps, which for the Norwich means a clutch of ales brewed in the old livery barn beside the inn, only a few hundred feet from where we lifted our first pint.
The Norwich Inn, just off the Appalachian Trail, was born in the 1700s in the same way as most taverns, as a resting point for journeymen, emigrants, and nomads after a long day on the road. Even though legislators of Puritan times had decidedly mixed feelings about alcohol, they sanctioned taverns in order to provide wayfarers with shelter and sustenance, and they meted out licenses to place inns a day’s horseback journey apart. This was partly a matter of protecting the citizens from constant annoyance; when there was no tavern, wayfarers were compelled to request food, lodging, and succor for themselves and their horses from the nearest house.
As soon as Col. Jasper Murdock, a self-made trader who had come to the Vermont wilderness with his parents in a dugout canoe, put up one of the first dwellings on the coaching road north of Boston, in 1797, he found himself obliged to take in travelers. After a time he made a business of it. Over the last two centuries his hostelry evolved with the world around it, catering to a changing clientele of Federal-era merchants, tourists headed for the White Mountains, and reveling Dartmouth students. It has expanded and contracted with the state of the local economy and the mettle of its owners, and, like every other tavern, it had to edge its way gingerly through Prohibition.
The Norwich Inn looks in every way a product of the Victorian era: Queen Anne shingling, a noble turret, a welcoming stick-style porch. But we found the Alehouse, like other old taverns, hard to date, since it has been so frequently rebuilt. Less important than encrustations of architecture or décor, however, is the Norwich Inn’s feel, which we noticed the moment we stepped inside to be greeted not by a “front-desk associate” but by the innkeeper himself, just as our great-grandparents might have been. Tim Wilson, the burly hotelier, even looks like a man of the past, one who eschews such modern conceits as aerobics and decaf cappuccino in favor of an honest larder and forthright hospitality. Before we could enter the realm of e-mail reservations and credit-card swipes, he ushered us into the tavern for a welcoming pint of spicy, thirst-quenching Old Slipperyskin India Pale Ale, followed closely by another of sweetish, chocolaty Stackpole Porter.