Restaurant Review: City Tavern

We are still working our way through our supply of $50 gift cards from the Restaurant Week contest and noticed that the card from City Tavern was due to expire on April 1. This restaurant has never really been high on our list of places to go, but we figured it would be silly to waste the card. So, we ended up there for dinner before catching a show at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater last weekend.

The City Tavern was constructed in the 1770s and during the period of the American Revolution, it was the social and economic center of the city. It served as the unofficial meeting place of the Continental Congress and hosting the likes of George Washington and John Adams.

The current chef, Walter Staib (if you live in the area, you may recognize him from the show “A Taste of History” on PBS) maintains some of the customs, china and glassware and food of that time period. This includes having the staff dress like “colonials.” So awkward. Even when I’m walking down the street in the historic district, I have to stifle my laughter when I see the Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin impersonators. I almost lost it when the hostess referred to the restrooms as “the necessaries.” Yes, I’m five years old.

I had assumed the menu would be filled with bizarre sounding things, like pheasant or squab, and that I wouldn’t find anything that sounded appealing. There are indeed those kinds of dishes on offer, but there are also pretty standard meat and fish dishes as well. I was surprised to see fried tofu on the menu, but it turns out that Ben Franklin had a recipe for it as far back as 1770s. That Ben really was a trendsetter.

The restaurant makes all of its bread and pastries in-house, and our server brought out three different kinds for us while we were looking over the menu. I thought they were all a bit on the dry side. I don’t remember the specifics of all of them, except for the sweet potato and pecan biscuits that were supposedly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite. Those ended up being our favorite, too.

I decided I wanted something light for an appetizer, so I chose the tomato and onion salad, which consisted of four slices of beefsteak tomato, topped with bits of red onion and a light vinegrette dressing. The tomatoes were sweeter than I expected, but it was pretty standard, really.  Chester had the broiled duck and pork sausage. Although it was tasty, it came out of the kitchen pretty quickly and was just warm. We suspected that it been cooked ahead of time and sat around for a bit.

For an entrée, I had the trout. It was pan-seared, which gave it a crispy coating, and topped with several different sauces, including brown butter, lemon, and Bearnaise. This sounds like a lot, but it actually wasn’t overly dressed. Chester had the steak and shrimp. The steak was cooked to medium rare, but it lacked a lot of the intense flavor that you find in a traditional steakhouse steak. The mashed potatoes that accompanied the dish were pretty dry.

Our server brought around a dessert tray with a variety of options, including apple cobbler (served with Bassett’s ice cream) and crème brulee, that all looked delicious. We ended up skipping dessert, though because the theater is located within walking distance of a Capogiro and that was our plan for after the show!

We ended up at the restaurant pretty early in the evening (about 5 p.m.) because we had to get across town for the show, and it was already pretty filled with the touristy crowd and families with children. The service was a little bit uneven at points, with the appetizers coming out very quickly and then the entrees lagging a bit.

All in all, the food was just average. I guess if you want to have the full historic experience, it’s a cool place to go, but it goes without saying that there are other places in the city that I would recommend to visitors who really want to see what Philly has to offer.

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