June 11, 2015

Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria

Gadsby's Tavern sign

Gadsby's Tavern Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, was built in 1792.

Most establishments can’t claim that their annual celebration of George Washington’s birthday originated with an appearance by the first president himself, but Gadsby’s Tavern Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria isn’t most establishments. Each February the tavern hosts a Birthnight Ball, organized by Gadsby's Tavern Museum, commemorating Washington, who attended the tavern's celebration in 1798 and again in 1799.

While the tavern’s Northern Virginia environs have changed considerably in the two centuries since Washington stopped by, one could still be forgiven for believing they had stumbled upon an unburied time capsule after stepping through the restaurant’s stately front entrance. Servers attired in colonial garb bustle through the dining rooms, which brim with period details including works of art and table settings.

Gadsby's Tavern past and present

photo by: Wikimedia Commons

A view of the tavern in 1916 (left) and today (right).

Gadsby's Tavern past and present

photo by: Wikimedia Commons

Constructed by John Wise in 1792 as a larger addition to the adjacent City Tavern, the original three-story Georgian edifice included a large ballroom with intricate wood paneling and an overhead gallery for musicians. The adjoining properties—which are now owned by the City of Alexandria and function as a museum and dining establishment—acquired their current name in 1796, when they were leased by English entrepreneur John Gadsby.

Given its presidential pedigree and prominent location in Alexandria—which remained part of the District of Columbia until 1846—the compound grew to become one of the area’s most popular and refined taverns, the center of D.C.'s nascent social and political culture.

Aside from George Washington, it hosted a series of presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Gadsby's Tavern food

Fried oysters and mini crab cakes with homemade citrus cocktail sauce.

Gadsby's Tavern window view

The tables at Gadsby's feature pewter dinner plates and hurricane candle lamps.

By the early twentieth century, however, the once-venerable buildings had fallen into disrepair and faced an uncertain fate. It was around this time when representatives from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City were searching for exhibits for their soon-to-open American Wing.

As a means of preserving the intricate colonial craftsmanship and history of the tavern, the Met negotiated the purchase of the musicians’ gallery, cornice, door frames, and mantelpieces and reassembled them in New York -- where they are still on display.

A few years later, around 1926, the derelict buildings were acquired by the American Legion, Post #24, and restored with the help of local organizations including the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Alexandria Committee of the Colonial Dames, the Garden Club of Alexandria, and the Alexandria Association. Details from the ballroom obtained by the Met were replicated, and by time the structures were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, plans were in place to re-open the dining portion in time for the country’s bicentennial celebration the following year.

Gadsby's Tavern place setting

One of the dining rooms at Gadsby's.

The current menu features a modern take on colonial classics, but retains old standbys like “George Washington’s Favorite,” a grilled duck breast with scalloped potatoes, corn pudding, rhotekraut, and port wine orange glace. Another favorite is the slow-roasted prime rib, featuring Yorkshire pudding, horseradish sauce, whipped potatoes, and vegetables du jour. (On a recent visit I savored a basket of crispy fried oysters dipped in a delectable homemade citrus cocktail sauce.)

The tavern also features a robust wine list that includes bottles from Grey Ghost Vineyards in Rappahannock County, Virginia. A trio of tasty ales from Yards Brewing Company is also available and features historic recipes from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.

Location: 138 North Royal Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Hours: Monday – Saturday lunch: 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.; dinner: 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.; Sunday: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

What You’re Having: The Grey Ghost Chardonnay; Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale; fried oysters; prime rib; George Washington’s Favorite Duck

Best Yelp Review: “There was a Ben Franklin looking guy playing the lute guitar when I was there. He was a hoot, speaking in 18th century accent and lingo. It was evident that the staff is very proud and knowledgeable of the historical merits of the restaurant.”

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