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FOOD & TRAVEL

These are some of New England’s oldest restaurants

Everyone always talks about what’s new and hot. Here we’ll pay some respect to the more elderly establishments.

Oysters have always been a big draw at Union Oyster House. In 1850, Cape oysters on the half shell went for 20 cents per dozen.Union Oyster House archives

When it comes to eateries, the buzz is always about what’s new and hot. But what about the more elderly establishments, the ones that have been quietly hosting diners for, say, 350 years? Truly, there’s one that old, the White Horse Tavern in Newport, R.I., widely regarded as America’s oldest restaurant. In fact, four of the country’s 10 oldest eateries are located in our region, according to The Daily Meal (www.thedailymeal.com). This being New England, controversy abounds — should a tavern that serves food be considered a restaurant? Was the place closed for a time and therefore not continuously operating? So, we took the liberty of highlighting a few golden oldies that offer good victuals and plenty of atmosphere. Here’s a peek inside those (old, wooden) doors. If you’d like to own one of these historic restaurants yourself, the Hancock Inn & Fox Tavern in Hancock, N.H. (c.1789) is currently on the market.

One of America’s oldest restaurants is right in our midst, the Union Oyster House. This local landmark began selling fresh seafood in 1826.Union Oyster House archives

Union Oyster House, Boston

This local landmark, opened in 1826, is the oldest restaurant in Boston. And it really is a piece of history — the eatery and its site were designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003, and the Union Oyster House has been officially recognized as the oldest continually operating restaurant and oyster bar in the United States.

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Entering the brick Georgian building is like walking onto a Colonial-era stage set. Paintings of notable patrons grace the walls, including Daniel Webster, a regular (and prodigious consumer of oysters and brandy, by accounts). President Kennedy’s favorite booth is located in an upstairs dining room. And it’s still going strong; Lonely Planet named it one of the 500 best restaurants in the world in 2018.

Menu: Then and now

A copy of a c.1850 menu, when the restaurant was known as Atwood & Bacon Oyster House, reveals Cape oysters on the half shell (20 cents per dozen); steamed Ipswich clams (15 cents), and scallops. Side dishes were a bland lot compared to modern tastes, including crackers and milk, dry toast, and boiled eggs. But there was pie, lots of pie — apple, mince, lemon, squash, and custard — at 5 cents per slice.

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The raw bar still reigns: They go through 15 to 20 bushels of oysters a day — that’s 1,500-2,000 oysters, says president Joseph Milano. (A half-dozen freshly-shucked oysters will set you back $18.95.) Clam chowder and lobster rolls also top the most-ordered list. Show your hometown pride by adding Boston baked beans and Boston cream pie to your order. Americo “Rico” DiFronzo has been executive chef for nine years.

Famous guests:

Too many to mention. Check out the “Wall of Fame” by the hostess station.

Secret sauce (how they’ve survived so many years):

“Loyal staff, and consistency with the quality of food and service, plus value, equals our secret recipe for success,” says Milano. www.unionoysterhouse.com

Newport’s White Horse Tavern has been hosting guests since 1673, making it the oldest operating restaurant in the United States.Discover Newport

White Horse Tavern, Newport, R.I.

Originally constructed as a private home, the storied White Horse Tavern has hosted guests since 1673, making this National Historic Landmark the oldest operating restaurant in the United States, (and possibly the 10th-oldest restaurant in the world.) The cast of characters may have included a Founding Father or two. By the mid-1950s, the property was showing its age, so the Preservation Society of Newport County purchased and restored the building — otherwise, “It was going to be turned into a gas station!” says general manager Jarred LaPlante. Now privately owned, the Colonial-era tavern has evolved into a fine dining establishment. But the moody vibe — think oversize beams, gleaming wood, and cavernous fireplaces — hasn’t changed.

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Menu: Then and now

No really “olde” menus exist, but those from the 1970s and ‘80s offer petite filet mignon for $9.50, and clam chowder for $2.25. They still make that famous chowder, a clear broth with clams, potatoes, bacon, and fennel for $7 a cup ($10 for a bowl). And beef remains a popular option: Beef Wellington ($48), with foie gras mousse, is a signature dish — it’s been on the menu for 50 years. Executive chef is Kevin DeMarco.

Famous guests:

No comment. But here’s a fun fact: Pirate William Mayes Jr. served as innkeeper briefly in the early 1700s.

Secret sauce:

“It takes a collaboration of good luck, the right people, and evolving with the times,” LaPlante says. Owners and staff feel a sense of pride and responsibility as caretakers of history, he adds. Look for anniversary events in the coming year. www.whitehorsenewport.com

The Griswold Inn has been serving food and spirits since 1776 and it still looks the part.Caryn B. Davis

Griswold Inn, Essex, Conn.

Set in picturesque Essex, “The Gris” is one of the oldest continuously operating inns in the country, serving food and spirits since 1776. At that time, guests boarded their horses in the livery (now the Pony Barn) out back. “We have operated through war, recessions, the Depression, even Prohibition, when the inn was a speakeasy,” says owner Joan Paul. Through it all, “Yankee ingenuity has kept our doors open!” The dining rooms and tavern haven’t changed much, leading Food & Wine magazine to deem The Gris “the coziest restaurant” in Connecticut. Public spaces are adorned with the largest collection of museum-quality maritime art in the country. In the Tap Room, you can still hear sea chanteys sung live, an echo of past revelry.

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Menu: Then and now

There’s no official documentation, but Paul suspects that roasted meats, “water fowle,” and seafood would’ve been on the bill of fare. Their signature clam chowder has been on the menu since the early days and is extremely popular. Fish n’ chips ($23) and baked cod ($34) are Gris classics. Seasonally, duck and venison may crop up on the menu. Executive chef is Shaheed Toppin.

Famous guests:

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and Albert Einstein have enjoyed refreshment at The Gris. More recently, they’ve hosted Meryl Streep, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, and Billy Joel.

Secret sauce:

“There is no other place like The Gris,” Paul says. “It is an establishment that could never be re-created,” she notes, but a true original that provides an authentic New England inn experience. www.griswoldinn.com

The diner named “best in Maine” by Downeast Magazine has been feeding hungry folks since 1927. The 15-seat dining car was built in Lowell, Mass.Christopher Buerkle

Palace Diner, Biddeford, Maine

The Palace Diner was named one of Bon Appetit’s “50 best new restaurants in the US” in 2014 — not bad for a place that’s been hosting customers since 1927! The “new” bit refers to chefs Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell, who bought the diner in 2014 and are its sixth proprietors. The 15-seat dining car was built in Lowell, Mass., by the Pollard Company, and is one of only two remaining in America. Conley and Mitchell, James Beard Award semifinalists for best chefs in the Northeast in 2019 and 2020, gave the diner some renovation love this year, and are feeling the love themselves; Downeast Magazine has named them “best diner in Maine” and Yankee Magazine deemed their tuna melt “the best in lunch counter history.” They offer breakfast and lunch all day.

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Two James Beard Award semifinalists have made the olde Palace Diner a dining hotspot in Biddeford, Maine.Christopher Buerkle

Menu: Then and now

Back in the old days, “the diner was open 24 hours a day and served mill workers quick, filling, inexpensive food,” Conley says. In the 1980s, a full kitchen was added to allow the restaurant to shift its menu as Biddeford transitioned from its mill-based economy. “More families were coming in, expecting what we think of today as the classic American diner breakfast.” Now, the diner’s top seller is the Deluxe Breakfast Sandwich ($13). “We serve diner classics like flapjacks, French toast, and eggs with potatoes, which were likely to have shown up on the original menu in some form,” he adds.

Famous guests:

“Yes, but everyone’s treated the same.”

Secret sauce:

“Since we took over, our approach has been to serve classic American diner food in its most perfect iteration, consistently,” Conley notes. “We want to serve the best French toast you’ve ever had, and we want you to trust that you can come back every time and have the same experience.” www.palacedinerme.com

In spite of the name, Louis's Lunch is open for dinner, too. Kindra Clineff

Louis’ Lunch, New Haven, Conn.

Do not ask for ketchup. Louis’ Lunch is a condiment-free zone, and they can do as they please; this family-run burger joint has been recognized by the Library of Congress as the birthplace of the hamburger sandwich. It is also the longest continuously operating hamburger restaurant in America, and one of the country’s oldest family-run businesses. Since 1895, they’ve been making their classic burger with a proprietary blend of five cuts of freshly ground beef, set a-sizzle on cast-iron grills purchased by founder Louis Lassen. Lassen’s great-grandson, Jeff, now runs the place. It’s an unassuming little spot, but a true burger lover won’t care — Louis’ Lunch is the mothership. (The building itself was relocated to Crown Street in 1975.) In spite of the name, they’re open for dinner, too. Murf and Paul are the resident burgermeisters.

Menu: Then and now

Initially, the restaurant served steak dinners. “A customer came in who was in a great rush and needed something he could eat on the run. My grandfather ground up some steak, put it between two slices of toast, and sent him on his way,” says Jeff Lassen. Word got out and a great American sandwich was launched.

Not much has changed. Everybody orders a burger with the works: a one-third-pound, hand-shaped patty made with their secret blend of ground beef, topped with a sharp Cheddar cheese spread, onion, and tomato on white toast ($7). House-made potato salad and a Connecticut-made Foxon Park birch beer are typical add-ons. Why the lack of condiments? “That’s the way my great grandfather did it. It’s all about the meat — we don’t want to cover up the flavor,” Lassen says. (They poke fun at this, selling a “no ketchup” T-shirt, featuring a bottle of ketchup, crossed out.) “People think we’re anti-ketchup, but we’re anti-all condiments,” Lassen quips.

Famous guests:

Steven Spielberg and Laurence Fishburne are among the celebrities who have dined here.

Secret sauce:

During the pandemic, “we made the burgers bigger, not smaller,” Lassen says. “We stay true to ourselves and our customers.” Lassen says. Families, working folks, tourists, Yalies — they’re all welcome here, provided they don’t ask for ketchup. www.louislunch.com

Opened in 1796, the Dorset Inn was modeled after Mount Vernon. Guests tied their horses at the inn’s front door.Union Oyster House archives

Dorset Inn, Dorset, Vt.

Opened in 1796, the Dorset Inn — then called the Washington Hotel — was designed to resemble President George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. After tethering their horses at the inn’s front door, guests would enjoy a hearty supper, prepared with ingredients culled from a kitchen garden and the backyard population of livestock, says owner Steve Bryant. Later on, local residents could purchase a hot chicken dinner.

The inn expanded as automobile travel began, and in the 1940s, when skiing and tourism made Vermont a popular vacation destination. In the mid-1980s, the inn was remodeled and updated, and the restaurant was “re-imagined as a world-class gourmet establishment,” Bryant says. Dinner is served nightly.

Menu: Then and now

In the late 1880s, meals for a full week were available for $7, accounts show. “Turkey croquettes and sauteed calves’ liver have been on the menu for as long as anyone can remember, and are still very popular.” Other signature dishes include grilled pork ribeye ($34) and New England cod. The kitchen is helmed by executive chefs Neil Philip and Jon Gatewood.

Famous guests:

Early records aren’t available, but over time, the inn has become popular with artists, writers, and actors. And every summer, famous actors at the Dorset Theatre Festival visit the tavern — recently, Tyne and Tim Daly and Tea Leoni.

Secret sauce:

Chalk it up to a relentless focus on details, exceptional talent at every level, and a welcoming vibe. “There’s a remarkable karma that guests feel when they walk in the door,” Bryant says. A picture-postcard setting in a quintessential Vermont village doesn’t hurt. “We consider ourselves stewards of an American treasure.” www.dorsetinn.com

The Dorset InnHandout

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com