When we think about really old restaurants, we tend to gravitate toward the ones that are located in big cities and have been around seemingly forever, like Keens Steakhouse in Manhattan. Sure, Keens is one of the city’s oldest restaurants, having opened in 1885, but the oldest restaurants in the country are still not as old as something that’s entirely different: the country's oldest dining rooms, located inside taverns and inns.
First, a little bit of history. Restaurants as we know them didn’t really exist in the United States until Delmonico’s opened in New York City in the 1830s. At this time, the whole concept of a "menu" was still pretty foreign, as the vast majority of people still ate at home, or at an inn or tavern, if they happened to be traveling and needed something to eat (or got hungry while out drinking). These stops didn’t have anything remotely resembling a bill of fare; if they happened to be making some beef stew in the kitchen, that’s what you’d be eating that night.
And therein lies the difference between restaurants and dining rooms and bar rooms at taverns and inns. Whereas the earliest restaurants (and therefore America’s oldest) tended to be lavish affairs with gigantic menus, private dining rooms galore, and menu options like "palmettes of snipe, Osborn," dining rooms at taverns and inns were a much more modest affair, catering to the cold, weary traveler instead of the well-heeled, Diamond Jim Brady-types. It wasn’t until the later 1800s when more casual restaurants came about, in the form of delicatessens and lunch counters.
In our quest to find America’s oldest taverns and inns, we tracked down lots of old Colonial-era houses that were converted into restaurants at some point in time, but many of them have only housed restaurants for less than 100 years. The taverns and inns on our list have fed the hungry for nearly as long as these buildings have been around, which in some cases is more than 300 years. And these aren’t museums, either; they’re places where you can still have a meal to this day, and they all date from before 1800.
Read on for a trip back to the very earliest days of American dining.
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers.