New TV series filmed at historic Mt. Airy site
John Mariani, famed food/restaurant critic for Esquire magazine, once warned his readers to avoid at all cost any restaurant that uses the words “Ye Olde” in its name. Otherwise, he said, you’ll probably wind up ordering dishes like “Liberty burgers” or “Poor Richard’s tuna melt”that taste more like cardboard than food. And you’ll probably be served by young people in stockings and breeches announcing, “Would anyone care for a libation?”
Up until 1992 this might have been an apt description of City Tavern, the 10-room, 300-seat restaurant at 138 S. 2nd St. which opened in 1773. According to the National Park Service, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Dr. Benjamin Rush, John Adams and other historical luminaries were regular customers. (Adams called it “the most genteel tavern in America.”) Members of the First Continental Congress held frequent meetings there, and the Constitutional Convention held its closing banquet there in 1789.
Because of its rich history, City Tavern regularly attracts far more tourists than any other restaurant in the city. In the summertime, about 70 percent of its customers are tourists, although that number drops to about 30 percent after Labor Day. However, for many years the U.S. Congress, which is responsible for the property since it is on U.S. Park Service land, had a contract with an institutional catering firm — the kind that prepares food for hospitals, prisons, nursing homes and public schools. Most of this food was prepared in bulk at a kitchen the size of Scotland, shipped to City Tavern and then reheated for customers.
As a result, City Tavern developed a reputation as a historical cartoon, a sort of culinary Three Mile Island and tourist trap. Recognizing this, Congress awarded a contract in April, 1994 (the restaurant had been closed for more than a year), to Walter Staib, one of the nation’s premier restaurant mavens, with a mandate to engineer a culinary revolution at City Tavern. (Staib has something in common with the boy in the movie, Sixth Sense, who could see dead people. Staib can see dead restaurants and bring them back to life.)
Walter, 62, was born and raised in Germany’s Black Forest region, where he worked in his uncle’s restaurant and butcher shop. Staib received formal training in many of Europe’s finest hotels and restaurants before coming to the U.S. in 1969. He eventually cooked at some of Europe’s most exclusive resorts. For example, at the Chessery in Gstaad, Switzerland, which was owned by Aga Khan, possibly the richest person in the world at the time, Walter cooked for Elizabeth Taylor, David Niven, Brigitte Bardot and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, among others. (No newspaper hacks in that bunch.) He also held key positions with the Hyatt, Sheraton and Omni hotel chains, and in 1989 he founded Concepts by Staib, Ltd., an internationally recognized restaurant management firm.
Since 1989 Walter has conceptualized and opened more than 450 upscale restaurants worldwide. He has also been the recipient of more than 40 industry honors and awards, including “Restaurateur of the Year” from the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley Restaurant Association. In other words, the guy definitely knows what he is doing anytime he is within miles of a professional kitchen.
But the City Tavern turnaround has definitely not been a Cinderella quick fix. It has been more like Sisyphus pushing a huge boulder up a hill in Hades. “Hillary Clinton may have forgiven Bill,” explained Walter, “but a lot of people who had a mediocre meal here 15 or more years ago still have never forgiven this place. It’s hard enough to turn a failing restaurant around, but it’s even harder to change its reputation in people’s minds, to persuade them to come back once the mistakes have been corrected.
“There are so many other restaurants people can go to, so if they read or heard 15 years ago that it was a ‘tourist trap,’ it’s very, very hard to persuade them to come back once the mistakes have been corrected.”
Another issue Walter has had to deal with is the notion that Colonial cooking was somehow unsophisticated and bland compared to today’s immense variety of cuisines. (The City Tavern does have some elements that harken back to the Colonial era, but frankly, the menu is not radically different from those of many upscale, contemporary American restaurants.)
But according to Staib, most Americans would be surprised how sophisticated the cuisine was in Philadelphia in the 1770s. “When Baron Von Steuben came here from Germany (to help train Washington’s troops),” said Staib, “he was surprised how much flavor there was in the food. The chefs certainly did not try to put 15 flavors on one plate or make diners take a stepladder to eat their dishes, as some chefs do today. The 18th-century American cuisine was equal to or better than any major ethnic cuisine today.”
Staib is so knowledgeable about Colonial cookery (and he is such a “ham”; pardon the expression) that he has appeared in documentaries for The History Channel and A&E. He was also recently selected to host A Taste of History, a public TV show which will be shown starting in September on WHYY and other public TV stations around the country. There will be 26 episodes during the first season, nine of which Staib has already filmed at RittenhouseTown, a site on the border between Mt. Airy and Germantown where the city’s first paper mill was constructed in 1690.
“The kitchen was built around 1720,” said Walter. “I loved cooking there. (A typical meal he prepares there, inspired by Martha Washington, consists of turkey stew, fried oysters and root vegetables.) We are also doing shows in other historical buildings like Monticello, but RittenhouseTown is the best place. In each show, I present a lot of historical information in addition to the cooking.”
We had dinner last Thursday night at City Tavern (and have eaten there several times since Walter took over), and the food and service were top-of-the-line. (And we were stunned at how busy the 300-seat restaurant was. We had a 7:30 p.m. reservation and were on time, but we still had to wait more than 20 minutes for a table to open up.) A server named Darren, who said his mother named him after the character of Darren on the TV show, “Bewitched,” was a real charmer.
An appetizer of crab cakes “Chesapeake style” ($11.95) seemed to have no filler, and the herb remoulade sauce was absolutely sublime. If there was a worm in the apple, it would have been the basil shrimp appetizer ($11.95), which was blanketed with so much barbecue sauce that it overwhelmed everything else. The only other negative was that the French fries kept getting attacked by the German sausage. (Ba-da-BOOM!)
I’m pretty sure there are only two German restaurants left in the entire Delaware Valley, so there is not exactly a big demand for German food, but my wife and I are nuts about it, especially a dish like Schlachtplatte ($25.99), an assortment of sausages with sweet, savory sauerkraut and spicy mustard. And there is a great “flight” of four draft beers ($10.95), two light and two dark, which are sheer heaven with the sausages.
An entrée of tenderloin tips ($23.95) tingled with a mustardy sauce, with the flavor of mushrooms and pliant egg noodles complementing the beef. A dessert of vanilla cheesecake was moist and delicious, unfolding off the plate like a fine silk handkerchief and gliding down the throat like velvet.
(For people interested in this sort of thing, some contemporary staffers insist there is a ghost at City Tavern; they say that table settings are mysteriously moved, and dishes come crashing off the wall with no rational explanation. It could be the nameless waiter who was murdered in City Tavern by a Col. Craig on January 3, 1781, after a drunken brawl.)
In addition to Walter Staib’s impressive cooking and TV career, he has written three cookbooks. The latest is (written with Paul Bauer) The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes From the Birthplace of American Cuisine, (Running Press, $35), which was released May 11. For more information or reservations, call 215-413-1443 or visit www.citytavern.com