There's no better remedy for the winter blues than a visit to a Colonial tavern. For centuries, travelers who have stepped out of the cold and into a tavern have found not only hearty Yankee fare, but also a feast for the senses: the warmth of a roaring fire, the creaking of uneven plank floors, the intoxicating incense of a smoky hearth and mulled apple cider, the taste of a cocktail chased by a swig of history.
Centuries ago, taverns offered respites for weary wayfarers on horseback. Today, they remain welcome havens from high-speed lives led on the information superhighway. Taverns are such a part of the region's heritage that the state tourism office has created the Massachusetts Tavern Trail to highlight Colonial-era watering holes from Boston to the Berkshires.
"The Commonwealth has a rich and textured history that is seen through many of these inns and taverns,'' says Betsy Wall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. "It's easy to feel like you have gone back in time when you enter through the doors of these treasured places and experience the warm hospitality of a bygone era.''
Stephanie Schorow, author of the forthcoming book "Drinking Boston: A History of the City and its Spirits'' (Union Park Press, 2012), says taverns played a pivotal role in Colonial life, even serving as venues for official meetings and legal proceedings. "Early in the Colonial period, taverns provided lodging and food for travelers as well as a convivial place for locals to gather and share news and gossip. Taverns incubated the American Revolution by providing a haven for groups like the Sons of Liberty to gather and plot. Even those who railed against hours wasted away in drink, saw the public house as a necessary part of social life.''
If you would like to imbibe a little of the Spirit of '76 yourself, here are 10 Massachusetts taverns to explore:
THE BELL IN HAND TAVERN, Boston A strong voice was a mandatory requirement for Jimmy Wilson's job. The last of Boston's town criers, Wilson roamed the city streets, and, after ringing his bell three times, belted out the news of the day, including everything from reports of a lost cow to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. When the jovial, heavy-set town crier opened a tavern in 1795, he aptly named it the Bell in Hand. Just steps from Faneuil Hall on one of Boston's oldest streets, it has a venerable feel, but the sound of fifes and drums have been replaced at night by cover bands and DJs pumping out loud dance music. The Bell in Hand's karaoke nights, however, might have been right up the alley of its leather-lunged founder. 45 Union St., 617-227-2098, www.bellinhand.com
WARREN TAVERN, Charlestown Joseph Warren gave his life for the patriot cause at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and in the shadow of the granite obelisk commemorating the clash is the historic 1780 tavern bearing his name. The Warren Tavern - one of the first buildings erected after the British torched Charlestown during the battle - has plank floors, low beam ceilings, and snug dining areas. As with another local institution, Fenway Park, the confines can be cozy, seats can be at a premium, and you may find yourself perched behind one of the many post beams. Paul Revere reportedly frequented the Warren Tavern, and it remains a popular neighborhood spot. 2 Pleasant St., 617-241-8142, www.warrentavern.com
WAYSIDE INN, Sudbury Revere may have been a regular at the Warren Tavern, but the Wayside Inn is where his legend was truly born. This public house inspired poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to pen his 1863 "Tales of a Wayside Inn,'' which included his famous ode "Paul Revere's Ride.'' Serving travelers on the Boston Post Road since 1716, the inn is a true throwback, particularly the Old Bar Room, one of two original rooms. Pewter tankards hang from the rafters, candles sit atop bare wooden tables, and a blaze crackles in the fireplace. Get in the Revolutionary spirit by sipping on a coow woow, an early American cocktail of two parts rum and one part ginger brandy, while reading a copy of Longfellow's iconic stanzas. Display cases include the personal effects of innkeeper Colonel Ezekiel Howe, including the sword he carried as he led Sudbury farmers on the 12-mile trek to Concord on the morning of April 19, 1775, when the first shots of the Revolution were fired. 72 Wayside Inn Road, 978-443-1776, www.wayside.org
COLONIAL INN, Concord While Howe played a part in the opening act of the Revolution, so did the Colonial Inn. The tavern inside the main inn, which dates from 1716, was used as a storehouse for arms and provisions on the morning of the battle at the Old North Bridge. Today, the Village Forge Tavern is not quite as seditious. The historic pub features live music, trivia nights, and a popular Sunday brunch. During warmer months, diners can sit on the inn's porch fronting historic Monument Square. 48 Monument Square, 978-369-9200, www.concordscolonialinn.com
BARKER TAVERN, Scituate Just steps from Scituate Harbor, the Barker Tavern offers a rare combination of Colonial charm and waterfront location. It incorporates part of an original 1634 dwelling, said to be one of the oldest standing houses in the United States. In the 17th century, the house was used as a garrison for defense during King Philip's War. Today, it's a fine dining destination on the South Shore with a traditional New England dining room and the more casual Eli's Pub, a private nook tucked into the restaurant. 21 Barker Road, 781-545-6533, www.barkertavern.com
SCARLET OAK TAVERN, Hingham The tavern dates only to 2007, but it's housed in a thoroughly restored 250-year-old Colonial house on what Eleanor Roosevelt called "the prettiest Main Street in America.'' A $1 million renovation reinvigorated the house, which features a comfortable dining room and a large, dark-wood bar. Scarlet Oak Tavern's seasonal menus feature local ingredients, including produce sourced from its own farm in Groton. 1217 Main St., 781-749-8200, www.scarletoaktavern.com
OLD YARMOUTH INN, Yarmouthport Cape Cod's oldest inn, halfway between Plymouth and Provincetown, first opened its doors to wayfarers in 1696. The wood-paneled tavern - featuring a polished bar, bay windows, and a small fireplace - is a cozy spot for a casual meal. The elegant Red Room, which dates to 1696, is a great backdrop for an intimate dinner. Keep your eyes peeled for the inn's resident ghosts. 223 Route 6A, 508-362-9962, www.oldyarmouthinn.com
SALEM CROSS INN, West Brookfield Colonial cuisine doesn't get much more authentic than at the Salem Cross Inn, 20 miles west of Worcester. The restored 1705 farmhouse has been a family-run restaurant since 1961. Waitstaff wear Colonial dress, and chefs bake in a restored 1699 brick oven and prepare beef, game, and fowl on the country's only known operating roasting jack - an 18th-century device that uses an intricate system of weights, cogs, and pulleys to turn a spit in huge hearths. The inn hosts special 18th-century-style feasts that include pie making, mulling, and chowder demonstrations along with horse-drawn wagon or sleigh rides through the 600-acre property. 260 West Main St., 508-867-2345, www.salemcrossinn.com
PUBLICK HOUSE, Sturbridge When Colonel Ebenezer Crafts opened the Publick House in 1771, the inn adjacent to picturesque Sturbridge Common quickly became a popular stopover for horsemen riding the roads from Boston to New York and Providence to Springfield. These days, the Publick House draws motorists from Interstate 84 and the Mass Pike. The rambling inn serves up Yankee fare, including its signature "every day is Thanksgiving'' turkey dinner, in the historic Tap Room and Ebenezer's Tavern, which feature period antiques, original woodwork, and cozy fireplaces. 277 Main St., 508-347-3313, www.publickhouse.com
RED LION INN, Stockbridge The small general store opened by Silas and Anna Bingham in 1773 quickly expanded into the Red Lion Inn, a popular stagecoach stop between Boston and Albany and headquarters for the 1786 Shays Rebellion. The sprawling inn's Widow Bingham's Tavern - with its low ceilings, massive posts, and warming fireplace - is a throwback to its early days as an eight-room public house. It offers a more casual and family-friendly option than the inn's formal, elegant dining room. Wicker baskets hanging from the rafters, historical lithographs, dark-wood paneling, and checked tablecloths lend a rustic vibe. 30 Main St., 413-298-5545, www.redlioninn.com
Christopher Klein can be reached at christopherklein.com.