NEWPORT, R.I. — The golden-brown dining room floor at White Horse Tavern has been molded by generations of soles that have trod its tender surface. The pinewood flooring is believed to be made from colonial ships and was once blacked by whale oil to repel moisture.
Today, more than 95 percent of the floorboards are original thanks to the blubber scrub that has since been buffed away, allowing the character of the centuries-old wood, which feels spongy when you walk on it, to shine.
The White Horse Tavern, recognized as the “oldest-operating restaurant in the US” and often listed among the oldest restaurants in the world, General Manager Jarred LaPlante told the Globe, is marking its 350th anniversary.
It wasn’t always a restaurant.
The Newport Historical Society calls Newport one of colonial America’s five-leading seaports (along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston) in a brief history of the city on its website. And one of the White Horse Tavern’s first owners was a local pirate, William Mayes, so it’s no surprise the tavern holds a bit of maritime history.
Prominent patrons included George Washington, brothers James and Benjamin Franklin who ran a printing press nearby, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, said LaPlante.
Englishman Francis Brinley built the home around 1652 and sold it about 20 years later to William Mayes Sr., according to a timeline on the tavern’s website. He converted it into a tavern in 1673.
British troops were quartered at the tavern during the British occupation in 1776.
“For the next three years, Newport would suffer a foreign occupation, crippling its economy,” Providence historian H. Scott Alexander wrote in his historical essay, “Siege of Newport.” “The town itself had been evenly split between the loyalists and the patriots.”
James Franklin arrived in Newport around 1727 and established his printing press that distributed political pamphlets and Rhode Island’s copy of the Declaration of Independence. The press was retired in 1851 and can be seen at the Museum of Newport History.
Washington stayed near White Horse Tavern during his wartime visit with Rochambeau.
“It is not out of the question that George Washington could have visited the tavern during his 1781 visit, however, there is no documentation,” said Bert Lippincott III, historian, and genealogist for the Newport Historical Society. “He was staying with Rochambeau and other French officers at Vernon House (a few blocks away), where the southern strategy of the war was discussed.”
The White Horse Tavern has had nine tavernkeepers, including its current one, Jeff Farrar, who also owns the Mill Street Inn in Newport. Farrar also operates Reluctant Panther Inn and Restaurant in Manchester, Vermont.
In addition to converting it to a tavern, its first tavernkeeper, William Mayes Sr., expanded the building, adding a third floor and the gambrel roof. He passed it to his son, retired pirate William Mayes, who is best known for taking over Captain William Kidd’s ship. When he succeeded his father as tavernkeeper, Mayes was granted a license “to sell all sorts of strong drink.” The tavern was handed down to Mary Mayes Nichols, William’s sister, and her husband, Robert, and stayed in the family for about 200 years. Jonathan Nichols first hung the white horse outside — a universal sign of a public house — and gave the tavern its name.
In colonial America, taverns were known as places for a quick meal and boarding.
Most of the original interior character of the building is still intact on the eastern side of the tavern, according to documents filed with the US Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. The heavy timber framing is exposed, showing the craftsmanship. The triple-run winding staircase with turned balusters near the Farewell Street entrance is original.
An error during restoration in 1950 altered the windows, which were swapped with windows common to early 18th-century buildings.
Preserving iconic buildings like White Horse Tavern is tricky because owners must keep them up to code with historic materials. Reclaimed wood around 350 years old is used if boards have to be replaced.
The Preservation Society of Newport County, which acquired the tavern in 1953, probably saved the building from demolition. The group operated White Horse Tavern as a restaurant and used the profits to pay for the upkeep. It was a new experience for the organization, which had been formed in 1945 for the purpose of restoring the Hunter House, an 18th-century home on Newport Harbor.
“Running a restaurant was a very different kind of venture,” said Gary Ruff, associate communications manager of the Preservation Society of Newport County. “One major obstacle to the White Horse Tavern’s financial success was the lack of a liquor license. With two churches nearby, the tavern fell under state restrictions on the sale of liquor within 200 feet of religious structures. It was not until 1969 that the state of Rhode Island passed the Historic Tavern Act, allowing the Preservation Society to obtain a liquor license for the White Horse.”
By the 1960s, the preservation society had turned its attention to saving Newport’s Gilded Age mansion, purchasing The Elms, Marble House, and Chateau-sur-Mer, Ruff said. The society’s Board of Trustees sold the White Horse Tavern while placing a historic easement on interior or exterior renovations.
While the preservation society did the heavy lifting to restore the building, its new owners are focused on cosmetic improvement, adding new mechanical systems — HVAC instead of oil heat — and routine maintenance like floorwork.
“It’s a very solid building,” LaPlante says.
Nowadays, the White Horse serves more than just “strong drink.” LaPlante says its menu offers “classic American fine dining.”
“We make an awesome Duck Scotch Egg, which you don’t see too often,” LaPlante says. “It’s a soft-boiled egg. They wrap it in Duck sausage, coach it with a panko bread crumb, flash fry and it comes out like a nice, runny yolk in the middle.”
Another menu staple that “won’t go anywhere” is the Beef Wellington, a traditional beef tenderloin.
Executive Chef Kevin DeMarco sources meat, seafood, and greens from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont.
Entrees include steak frites, the catch of the day, pan-seared scallops, lobster ravioli, wild mushroom farro with arugula pesto, and rigatoni Bolognese with house-blended beef and pork. Patrons can choose from raw-bar items like Rhode Island littleneck clams, oysters, crab, and shrimp, and there is a selection of imported and domestic charcuterie and cheeses.
In keeping with the tavern’s history — it was once a center for local affairs in Newport’s early years — LaPlante says they like to keep things cool and relaxed. The building was a meeting place for the Rhode Island Colony’s General Assembly, town council, and court matters.
Those waiting for dinner can still find strong drinks at the bar, located in the original living room. Every room has a large hearth connected to the towering central fireplace. The fireplaces are only lit when the temperatures drop below 40 degrees, because they make it so toasty inside.
LaPlante says patrons enjoy the rich, sweet scent of the fireplaces that burn mixed maple and oak logs. You can smell the previous fires before you enter. At the top of the winding staircases are a pub and dining area. The area was once used for boarding. Administrative offices occupy the third floor, which was added in the 1800s.
The White Horse seats guests year-round, much like a diner. The cavernous rooms and large sash windows offer views of the historic surrounding neighborhood.
All sorts come to the restaurant, LaPlante said.
“People don’t accidentally come here,” LaPlante said. “People kind of set their mind that they’re going to the (White Horse).”