The tavern is the city’s oldest genre for dining and drinking, predating lunch counters, rooming-house kitchens, oyster cellars, diners made from actual railroad dining cars, and full-blown restaurants, of which Delmonico’s became the first back in 1827. Records indicate that taverns existed in the city as early as 1641 when a place called Wooden Horse opened on Bridge Street. Built in 1719, Fraunces Tavern is our oldest tavern still extant – George Washington was a regular.
Not to be confused with pubs and bars, whose main purpose is drinking, taverns were also a place of refuge for travelers. Like inns, they sometimes provided stables and rooms upstairs to spend the night. Though liquid refreshment was a major function – serving ales, wines, and spirits – nourishment was every bit as important, from a limited menu that often ran to a single set meal, or sometimes just bread, cheese, and a cold roast.
True taverns have been part of the city’s fabric ever since. Pete’s Tavern was founded south of Gramercy Park in 1864, while the White Horse Tavern first appeared in Greenwich Village in 1880, and became a literary hangout in the 20th century. It once rented rooms upstairs, and Jack Kerouac reportedly lived above the barroom in the 1950s. The White Horse offered a basic menu of mainly hamburgers, toasted cheese, and nachos until a sale in 2019 resulted in a more ambitious menu.
In fact, this transformation of the White Horse, which is now incongruously bedecked with colorful plastic flowers, was only the latest manifestation of a tavern revival that started slowly nearly three decades ago with the Gramercy Tavern (1994) and Minetta Tavern (2009), both offering decidedly upscale versions of a venerable city institution. Now, taverns are once again becoming a popular restaurant genre. The latest is characterized by a staid premises decorated with art rather than neon, a full-service staff adept at tableside presentations, plush furniture rather than hard backless stools, and a limited menu that looks back to European food for inspiration.
I decided to explore the phenomenon by visiting three new establishments. The ironically named Corner Bar (making it sound like a dive) is in many ways the best. Like taverns of yore, it offers overnight accommodations – in a related luxury hotel next door. A marble-clad bar dominates the compact and handsome dining room, decorated with dark woods and white tiles, offering views of the historic Lower East Side. The menu, too, is compact, encompassing four appetizers, four raw-bar selections, and only six entrees, including a steak, burger, roast chicken, and plate of spaghetti.
When offering a menu this straightforward at elevated prices, the renditions must be memorably better than the same meal in a common bistro — and they are. The roast chicken ($45) has been deconstructed, dotted with chanterelles, and served in a sherry demiglace. The heirloom tomato salad ($22) contains only the sweetest and most colorful specimens, with goat cheese and toasted pignoli; only the gargantuan mussels ($38) bomb, served in a ho-hum fennel-and-Dijon broth with a baseball-bat-size crouton, rather than frites.
The hamburger is served with New York cheddar and a smoked-onion remoulade, a comparative bargain at $24, though hefty fries upstage the burger. Complete your meal with a serving of profiteroles finished tableside with a prodigious pour of dark chocolate, a dish that might be called the retro dessert of the summer.
The burger at Smyth Tavern is not quite as good, though it partakes of the same smoky flavor, in this case, furnished by caramelized bacon jam. This corner restaurant is also attached to an upstairs hotel, and the interior is sublime: a spacious, L-shaped room with a long bar on one leg and a dim room filled with dark upholstery and distinguished photos of an artistic nature on the other. The tables are separated by partitions so that looking across the room, all you see are heads. As with Corner Bar, the menu seems aimed at weary travelers of decades ago, with about 10 small plates, soups, and salads, and only six entrees — each of which could serve as a single-plate meal in itself.
The corn soup ($24) arrives dotted with crabmeat, suggesting the city’s early saltwater and agrarian roots, and debt to the Native Americans; deviled eggs are topped with black caviar that the menu assures us is American. There’s a roast chicken, too, and a lobster roll ($34) that matches the price of a six-ounce sandwich at Luke’s Lobster Roll. The menu really goes out on a limb only once, with a mafaldine — pasta like narrow lasagna noodles dressed assertively with uni butter and lobster knuckle, a strange plate of pasta but pretty good nonetheless.
The odd man out among these taverns is slightly older than the other two. Furtively opened late last year, Commerce Inn resembles a historic tavern of the 18th century. The already old-looking premises has been retrofitted with Shaker furniture and ceramics, as well as other items that might have been acquired in a very fancy antique shop. The effect is like dining in a museum, but the food —- listed on a menu with typography that evokes the Colonial era — channels what one might have eaten in a Revolutionary War tavern.
There are milk punches to wash down sturdy dishes like baked beans with pork belly ($16), bone marrow with roasted mushrooms, grilled sweetbreads, and, of course, a roast chicken ($32) smothered in greasy fried potatoes. All very quaint, but slightly reminiscent of a New York City theme restaurant of the 1990s, where the food is self-consciously unusual. Did I mention that the food is also good? At the same time, one gets the creepy feeling near the end of a meal that you’ve time-traveled here, and might never return to 2022.