PROVIDENCE — In New England, taverns have always been more than a simple place to eat and drink. During the Colonial era, they were also a place for weary travelers to sleep, and a spot for locals to gather, share news, and debate.
In Boston, the Sons of Liberty planned their historic 1773 “tea party” while meeting at the Green Dragon Tavern. In the 1840s, unsatisfied with efforts to free Rhode Island from the Royal Charter of 1663, former Rhode Island state representative Thomas Dorr made Jebediah Sprague’s Tavern in Chepachet, now known as Tavern on Main, his headquarters. The White Horse Tavern in Newport served as Newport’s city council, Rhode Island Colony’s General Assembly, and the colony’s criminal court for more than 100 years.
“Taverns were initially public houses. They were brought about because travelers needed a place to have a drink, get a meal, or have a bed,” said Robert Geake, a Pawtucket historian and author of “Historic Taverns of Rhode Island.”
As communities grew, taverns — with their food, alcohol, and blazing hearths — became a more comfortable place for locals to gather, Geake told the Globe. Eventually, taverns became the choice location for early governments and court systems in New England.
“The tavern was the most democratic place to discuss politics,” Geake said. “Early justices of the peace were justices who rode around on the circuit to different communities. They would set up in a tavern and hear civic hearings and community complaints.”
Rhode Islanders still head to taverns these days to discuss news and politics, and to debate the Patriots’ and Red Sox’s stumbles. Here are a few of the oldest, most-historic taverns in the Ocean State.
White Horse Tavern, Newport: The White Horse Tavern predates American independence and the “Siege of Newport.” It was built in 1652 as a home for English immigrant, politician, and attorney Francis Brinley, and was later owned by notorious pirate William Mayes Jr., the marauder best known for taking over Captain William Kidd’s ship and allegedly leaving him stranded in the Caribbean. These days, the tavern serves classic American fine dining, including Duck Scotch Egg, Beef Wellington, pan-seared scallops, and Rhode Island littleneck clams, oysters, crab, and shrimp. 26 Marlborough St., Newport, R.I.
Tavern on Main, Chepachet: Allegedly haunted by People’s Party leader Thomas Dorr and others from the Dorr Rebellion in the early 1840s, the tavern was built around 1760 for Cyrus Cooke, who converted it into a bar in about 1800. Bar operator David Lumnah now serves a menu of haddock homard — topped with Maine Lobster and cracker crumbs — stuffed shrimp, chicken and veal parmesan, seafood alfredo, roast beef, and prime rib. 1157 Putnam Pike, Chepachet, R.I.
Carriage Inn and Saloon, North Kingstown: Tug a giant iron ring to open the door of this tavern, which was once a 19th-century cut-stone barn. Rumored to have once been a brothel, the old masonry building is now a modern restaurant and banquet room. Owner Roy Ring offers a wide selection of American fare, including Reuben egg rolls and prime rib rolls, seafood, pasta, steaks, prime rib shepherd’s pie, and stuffed shrimp. 1065 Tower Hill Road, North Kingstown, R.I.
General Stanton Inn, Charlestown: Some believe the gable-roofed, center-chimney house that’s now home to the General Stanton Inn was built more than 100 years before American Independence. It was sold “at lottery” to General Joseph Stanton in 1796, who enlarged it and made it his home. It was reportedly used as a Native American schoolhouse as early as 1775, and Stanton, who reportedly was an early member of the Sons of Liberty, may also have used the inn as a secret gathering place for George Washington’s spy ring, according to the tavern’s website. Four Presidents — Washington, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bush Sr. — have been guests, and the ghosts of the first General Stanton, one of his daughters, and his cat are rumored to appear now and then. Now, the tavern serves seafood and American fare for dinner guests, hotel guests, and gatherings. 4115 Old Post Road, Charlestown, R.I.
DeWolf Tavern, Bristol: In Rhode Island, the DeWolf name is linked to slavery; though Rhode Island outlawed slave trading in 1787, James DeWolf and his family continued to run slaving trips to West Africa illegally until 1820. It was built around 1818 and used as a warehouse; a boat slip running alongside it allowed goods to be unloaded to both levels of the building, and pieces of wooden rum barrels were found during renovations, according to the tavern’s website. Today, the dinner menu includes a variety of seafood as well as chicken, lamb, shaved steak, and an excellent oyster po’boy. 259 Thames St, Bristol, R.I.
Ciro’s Tavern, Woonsocket: The four-story building that houses this Old English-style pub was built in 1893 and has been used as a retail space, a family home, and a boarding house. The menu is a mix of American and English fare: fish and chips, parmesan encrusted chicken, lobster ravioli, penne vodka, and more. 42 Cherry Street, Woonsocket, R.I.
Murphy’s Tavern, Providence: Joseph Murphy opened Murphy’s Lunch in The National Building in 1929, and it later merged with Keyhole Lounge and became an Irish Pub and restaurant. The business has survived the challenges of the Great Depression (1929-1941), Prohibition (1920-1933), and COVID-19. It moved to the nearby Cosmopolitan Building (Palmer Block) in 2007. The restaurant’s menu is an amalgamation of Murphy’s original New York Deli menu, Irish, and American fare. 100 Fountain St, Providence
O’Rourke’s Bar and Grill, Warwick: The tavern first opened in the 1890s as the White & Sanders grocery store, and was later developed into Parkway Tavern and then Gaspee Lounge. In 2005, tavernkeeper Michael O’Rourke did a major renovation and renamed the pub O’Rourke’s Bar and Grill. The pub has patio dining and serves a mix of Irish and American food, including its popular “Irish Nachos.” 23 Peck Lane, Warwick, R.I.