Philadelphia--On certain blocks east of Independence Hall, you can't turn a corner without tripping over someone in knee breeches, a waistcoat, and a tricorn hat. Step into the back barroom of the City Tavern, and you might guess you'd stumbled onto the hangout where costumed workers in the history industry come to unwind. But no, these are the City Tavern's waiters, taking a break from dishing out a taste of pre-Revolutionary life.
In a sense, the entire building on Second and Walnut streets is in costume. A famous tavern stood on this site from 1773 until it was torn down in 1854. The National Park Service rebuilt it just in time for the bicentennial. Today, reproductions conjure up an early-American scene: spindle-back chairs, brass candlesticks, pewter tankards, a 1793 china pattern, and handblown Madeira glasses. The chef, Walter Staib, bases his menu on historical recipes--though he doesn't take them too literally.
The modern world keeps seeping in. Credit card modems whir, white-stockinged legs are shod in black Reeboks, and the sight of an Asian waiter raises questions about immigration patterns. And if this is supposed to be 1776, none of the customers got the memo. They're in T-shirts, cargo shorts, and baseball caps; they've strewn their sunglasses, plastic water bottles, and MacLaren strollers around the room; and many seem to prefer Diet Coke to George Washington's smooth molasses porter.
Taverns were the crossroads of colonial life, often the only place open to everybody, from ship captains peddling cargo to out-of-towners needing a room. (Women were welcome, too, unless they seemed to be trawling for customers.) A combination of newsstand, bar, dance hall, conference room, debate club, hotel, and office water cooler, taverns offered a steady supply of news and information.
Every village needed one. Philadelphia had more than 120 taverns by the time the original City Tavern opened. Right away, it became a backdrop for the epic national drama about to be staged. Delegates to the First Continental Congress--including John Adams and George Washington--stopped there the minute they hit town. In 1787, when the framers of the Constitution had finally reached all their delicate compromises, they adjourned to City Tavern to celebrate.
Hangout. In his book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg writes, "Great civilizations, like great cities, share a common feature. Evolving within them and crucial to their growth and refinement are distinctive informal public gathering places." He means barbershops, cafes, cigar stores, beer halls, playgrounds--anywhere locals can haphazardly congregate to gossip, exchange news, and just hang out. From time to time, these places become the kitchens where new social movements are cooked up. Think of civil rights leaders talking strategy at black-owned coffee shops or the poets and Abstract Expressionists trading ideas and girlfriends at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village.
What changes would Benjamin Franklin notice if he came back today? "Obviously, there's electricity, air conditioning, and the outhouse is now in-house," says Staib. "But the biggest difference is that you get to pick off a menu, and you sit at a small table. In the 18th century, there were big tables and you ate whatever they cooked." Set meal times and long tables encouraged chance meetings. At the City Tavern, members of a community came together to hammer out the shape of a new country. Today, nobody comes together; we eat at separate tables and drive home alone. An innocuous line on City Tavern's menu shows how things have changed: "In order to help us maintain a historic ambience, please refrain from the use of cellular phones." Still, if Franklin were around, he wouldn't hang out anywhere he couldn't get a decent Wi-Fi connection to post his latest thoughts on Poor Richard's Blog.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.