Fraunces Tavern is a whisky-soaked lesson in some of the weirdest, most wonderful moments of American history . It was the go-to spot for all Revolutionary festivities, from the farewell dinner that a certain George Washington held for his officers in 1783, to the “Evacuation Day” party thrown by the governor once the British split. Whether it was being pummelled by a cannonball, or safeguarding plans of Revolution, the most remarkable thing about the 300-year-old watering hole is the fact that it’s still standing amongst Manhattan’s skyscrapers– and still serving the thirsty.
So let’s step inside for a pint and a bit of gossip on one of the dandiest of the Founding Fathers…
You can trace the tavern’s history as far as 1719, proudly perched on the tip of a sparsely-populated Manhattan, when the site had a view of the entire bay. Situated at 54 Pearl Street at the corner of Broad Street, it is officially the city’s oldest building.
It became the hub for high society members to mingle. Especially those who may have favoured separating from Britain, but were still waxing nostalgic for feudal Europe (like DeLancey). And that’s where Samuel Fraunces comes in…
He acquired the property in 1762. “His name is basically a fancier version of ‘Frances’,” says one of the museum’s historians (whose encyclopaedic brain alone is worth the $7 entrance fee to the museum hiding above the restaurant).
“It’s very, very possible he was a white-passing as black man. Some say he was a cook for Washington in the West Indies prior to arriving in New York, and his being a former servant in an estate does make sense, because it would’ve taught him how to make the tavern into this hip place for all the dandies and revolutionaries. He was an amazing social climber. He was very macaroni.”
FYI: “Macaroni” was slang for posh folk back in the day (which is exactly why Yankee Doodle feels dandy when he sticks a feather in his cap). “If you were macaroni,” says our guide, “you had swag.” And George Washington, being the most macaroni of them all, chose Fraunces’ Long Hall to bid farewell to his troops after the war was won.
The sumptuous thank you dinner was called “the turtle feast” due to the main course, and it was the perfect backdrop for Washington’s teary goodbye. “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you,” he said, taking every single officer by hand, “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honourable.”
The dark wood table hasn’t budged since that day, and the Long Hall still looks as though it’s populated by revolutionary ghosts sipping wine, playing cards, and reminiscing about moments from the battle field…
“It was a super dramatic night,” says our guide, “and Washington was very into creating this grandeur about himself. There were always halos around his head in paintings, and he made his servants walk around him with giant feathers when he was in public.”
Early American politics, he continues, could feel very theatrical — and it was hard to draw the line between fact, fiction, and historical “embellishment”.
Just consider the parlour across the hall, whose wallpaper depicts the heroic “Battle of Niagra Falls”…which never even happened. “The room is basically wall-papered in lies,” he says with a tongue-in-cheek tone.
In that way, the tavern (and its wonderfully loose-lipped guides) pulls the curtain back on the myth Washington transformed himself into. “For one, you always see him as this perfectly built man, which wasn’t true. He had a stalky pear-shaped body you could see on the battlefield.”
Then there was his obsession to get the perfect set of teeth, which led him to buy the pearly whites from the mouth of a living, enslaved black man. “He had hundreds of body parts that didn’t belong to him,” he says, “he got the slave’s teeth at a super low price and tried to plant them in his own mouth, but his body rejected them. Walrus bone worked better.” Today, one of the teeth sits upstairs as a pendant:
There are also encased strands of his red hair, and a lone gold slipper belonging to his wife, Martha.
You’ve got to look carefully where you tread in the tavern, because you’re likely to walk past some Smithsonian-worthy bits of history, like the painted panel of an eagle that adorned Washington’s carriage on the way to his inauguration. “He was pretty bummed he couldn’t serve for life,” he says, “he would’ve liked to give himself this position as a kind of King of America.”
Of course, the best way to experience the space is to make like George with a feast of your own…
Head back downstairs after visiting the museum for dinner in the oak panelled Tallmadge Room, whose 18th-century windows looks out onto Pearl Street, and whose kitchen claims to serve the president’s favourite pot pie.
Finally, head to the whisky bar for a nightcap before stepping out of its doors, and back into the 21st century…