When most people think of where to go to learn about the history of a new city, they usually think of visiting its museums, architectural landmarks, public parks and historic homes. However, another way to learn the history of a city is through its food particularly if you're eating it in some of the more story-old restaurants.
Here’s a selection of legendary eateries from coast to coast that serve up a side of their city’s history alongside each dish.
1. Antoine’s – New Orleans, Louisiana
Antoine’s has the distinction of being not only the oldest family-run restaurant in New Orleans, a city known for its lavish, historic dining rooms, but the oldest family-run restaurant in the nation. A bucket-list restaurant for anyone interested in American foodways – or American history, for that matter – the kitchen here is faithful to the preservation of Creole traditions.
The fifth-generation owners who oversee this swanky, old-time French Quarter institution have kept all its old-world elegance meticulously preserved – from the luxe chandeliers and drapes to the famous oysters Rockefeller, which was invented here. Pro tip: in keeping with tradition, men without collared shirts will be turned away. It all adds up to Southern culinary heritage at its most refined and delicious.
2. Buckhorn Exchange – Denver, Colorado
Before Colorado was a destination for its world-class breweries (more than 400 and counting) and whiskey distilleries, and before winemakers grew vineyards on the Rockies’ western slope, there was Buckhorn Exchange. This Denver bar, which became part of the National Historic Register in 1983, acquired the state’s first liquor license in 1893. Since then it has welcomed a steady parade of silver barons, railroad builders, businessmen, miners, cowboys and military generals – with a few American presidents, Native American leaders, and Hollywood legends (we’re looking at you, Bob Hope and Will Rogers) tossed in for good measure.
Adorned with more than 550 taxidermy pieces including rare animals, the vintage space feels like a cross between a family saloon and the Smithsonian, what with its museum-caliber displays of local railroad and political memorabilia and a legendary collection of 125 old guns, from pistols to sporting rifles. The grub here is just as historic as everything else. It’s said that the menu hasn’t changed since the early days.
3. Tadich Grill – San Francisco, California
This San Francisco institution got its start as a coffee stand that was set up on the wharf in 1849. Originally owned by three Croatian immigrants, the business grew steadily, in part because of the decision to start selling food in addition to coffee. Seafood grilled over Mesquite charcoal in a traditionally Croatian method was a major draw. It was purchased in 1887 by John Tadich, who gave the restaurant its first real name (it was just called "Coffee Stand" before). By the time Tadich sold it in 1928, the name had stuck.
The Tadich Grill has come up in the world from its origins as a tent on the wharf, though its menu still focuses on fresh local seafood. Now located right downtown on California street, the decor here harkens back to the glamorous art deco vibe it had when Tadich sold it in the 1920s. The clientele here can vary wildly — from suited business people on their lunch break to tourists in casual attire — but what you wear matters less than your patience. There are no reservations taken here and, on busy nights, the wait for a table can take a while.
4. Union Oyster House – Boston, Massachusetts
One block from the fluorescent lights of Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch and the rest of Faneuil Hall’s retail activity sits the seafood restaurant that started it all. Centuries before trendy urban brasseries around the country offered “dollar oyster” nights, there was Union Oyster House. Established in 1826 and said to be the oldest restaurant in America, the Boston hangout was a lively scene far before the Civil War was fought. (Legend has it that Daniel Webster was a regular.)
Set in a pre-Revolutionary building — all weathered wood and creaky floors — its tables are arranged exactly as they were nearly two centuries ago. Go for the steamers, stay for the renowned clam chowder, oysters on the half-shell, and other classic tastes of New England.
Currently, Union Oyster House is offering pickup and curbside options.
5. Chris' Hotdogs - Montgomery, Alabama
If you want a side of history with your hot dog, Chris' Hotdogs has you covered. This beloved local spot has been a fixture in Montgomery since 1917. It was the favorite local hang out of many of the city's famous locals, including writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife as well as musician Hank Williams, who rumor has it wrote his famous song 'Hey Good Lookin' here. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was even known to request a box of Chris' hot dogs be brought to his train whenever it passed through the city. Today, the restaurant is still the heart of the city, located directly on Dexter Avenue, down the street from the Alabama State Capitol and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr (also a regular here) was pastor in the 1950s.
6. Katz’s Delicatessen – New York, New York
That smell of smoked pastrami and kosher dill pickles that hits you when you walk into the legendary Katz’s Deli is the same smell that’s permeated the bustling, noisy and delightfully frenetic restaurant for decades. What opened in 1888 as a modest deli known for its house-made sausages is now one of the marquee attractions in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and one of the few remaining bastions that defined the vibrant Yiddish-speaking Jewish community that once flourished there.
Today, its walls are covered in photos of countless celebrity visitors, neon signs, and old ad posters, including Katz’s famous campaign during WWII: “Send a Salami To Your Boy in the Army.” (Yes, you need a proper New York accent to make that rhyme.) Several thousand people arrive each day to chow down on knishes, frankfurters, matzoh ball soup, and the legendary slow-cured corned beef and pastrami, just like New Yorkers have done for ages.
7. McGillin’s Old Ale House – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Drinking trends come and go and McGillin’s, established 1860, has weathered them all. This Philly tavern, set in an alley around the corner from the grand City Hall, is part history museum (see: walls festooned with old photos, liquor licenses, and signs from shuttered businesses) and part contemporary sports bar with the channels tuned to the Phillies, Eagles or 76ers game whenever the players are in action. The one constant here, aside from the brickwork and pressed-tin ceiling, is the local legendary ale, Yuengling, constantly being poured.
8. Fraunces Tavern - New York, NY
Tucked amid the impossibly tall modern skyscrapers of New York's Financial District, sits a more than 300-year-old colonial-era tavern. Opened in 1719, Fraunces Tavern played a very important role as a meeting place during colonial times. It was a major meeting point during the Revolutionary War and has the distinction of being where George Washington threw an elaborate dinner party for his officers once the war was won. Today, the tavern is still open for diners as well as home to a museum that educates guests about the history of the tavern and the role it played in the making of America.
9. The Palace Restaurant and Saloon – Prescott, Arizona
The spirit of the old frontier lives large at the Palace Restaurant and Saloon. Since it was rebuilt in 1901 after a fire annihilated the original 1877 building, notables that have sauntered through the squeaky swinging doors include Steve McQueen, Peter Fonda, and Wyatt Earp.
Not only is the Palace Restaurant and Saloon the oldest bar in Arizona, it’s also the state’s oldest business. The staff, done up in vintage Old West garb, will tell you stories of its years as a speakeasy, a brothel and that yes, of course, it’s haunted. Guests today can belly up at the original ornately carved bar, which was saved from the devastating fire by devoted patrons who carried it across the street.
10. White Horse Tavern - Newport, Rhode Island
The White Horse Tavern, generally accepted to be the oldest restaurant in the US, opened in 1673 on the beautiful waterfront city of Newport, Rhode Island. The restored red-brick colonial building with its distinctive gambrel roof, is in fact one of the oldest restaurants in the world. Though both the interior and exterior of the building retain the charm of the building's era, the cuisine is actually much more modern and upscale than it would have been in the 1600s. Though, the restaurant still prides itself in using ingredients from local farms and fisheries, just as it would have when the place was first founded.
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