What can you expect from one of America’s longest-running restaurants? A timeless design and a menu concept that’s build to last, a roster of famous clientele (often including former presidents), and sometimes even a disaster or two (a number of places in this collection were rebuilt after devastating fires and floods).
But more than these quantitative characteristics, the oldest restaurants in the country have lasted this long because of unique qualities that are much tougher to define.
For instance, Breitbach’s Country Dining opened in Balltown, Iowa, in 1852 and is one of the oldest family-run restaurants in the nation. Breitbach’s suffered a fire in 2007 that destroyed the building, and immediately the community rallied to help rebuild the structure. Exactly 10 months later the restaurant burned down again, but again the community rebuilt Breitbach’s. Clearly the livelihood of this restaurant is extremely important to the people of Balltown.
While not a definitive list, the following restaurants are some of nation’s oldest. From White Horse Tavern in Newport, R.I., to The Buckhorn Exchange in Denver, consider this a checklist for dining in some of America’s most time-honored spots.
Louis' Lunch (1895) New Haven, Conn.
Take a trip to Louis’ Lunch for a burger of historic proportions, cooked to order just like it was when Louis made the very first "hamburger sandwich" in 1900 — hand-shaped patties served between toast with cheese (and onion if you’re lucky and it’s not too crowded). The burgers are even cooked on the original cast-iron grills that date back to 1898.
Buckhorn Exchange (1893) Denver
Henry "Shorty Scout" Zietz opened the Buckhorn Exchange during a time when cattlemen, miners, railroad workers, silver barons, Indian chiefs, drifters, and businessmen all dined under the same roof. The restaurant was given the first liquor license in the state of Colorado and the food menu remains mostly unchanged to this day.
McGillin’s Olde Ale House (1860) Philadelphia
The oldest continually operated restaurant and tavern in Philadelphia, McGillin's opened its doors the same year Lincoln was elected (in 1860, just a few years after the Liberty Bell cracked). The spot was originally called The Bell in Hand, but patrons began calling in McGillin’s after the owner, William McGillin. He and his wife raised their 13 children upstairs from the tavern, but eventually the restaurant expanded to include their living space as well as the oyster house next door.
Breitbach’s Country Dining (1852) Balltown, Iowa
Breitbach’s, the oldest restaurant in Iowa, was established in 1852 in Balltown under a permit issued by President Millard Fillmore. Employee Jacob Breitbach bought the restaurant from the original owner in 1862 and it’s been run by the family ever since (now on the sixth generation of ownership). The first of two fires that destroyed the building happened in 2007, and the restaurant was rebuilt immediately with the help of hundreds of volunteers from the community. Ten months later the second fire struck, but the community rallied together once again to rebuild Breitbach’s.
Tadich Grill (1849) San Francisco
The Tadich Grill opened in 1849 during the height of the Gold Rush in California, when thousands headed west in hopes of striking it rich. Initially opening as a coffee stand, Tadich Grill has been a full-service restaurant since employee John Tadich bought it in 1887. The eatery claims to be the first U.S. restaurant to grill seafood over mesquite charcoal, a cooking method the Croatian owner used while growing up.
Antione’s Restaurant (1840) New Orleans
Located in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Antoine’s has been serving up authentic Louisiana Creole fare since it opened in 1840. The restaurant was founded by Antoine Alciatore and has been run by his family ever since, making it the oldest family-run restaurant in the country. Alciatore claimed to have invented Oysters Rockefeller in the Antoine’s kitchen. The original location of the restaurant was one block away from the current spot; they moved in 1868 due to popular demands for expansion.
Union Oyster House (1826) Boston
Before turning into a restaurant in 1826, this building held "At the Sign of the Cornfields," a formal dress store — in 1771 a printer named Isaiah Thomas used the second floor to publish a newspaper called The Massachusetts Spy. The original name of the restaurant was the Atwood and Bacon Oyster House, but quickly changed to the Union Oyster House.
The restaurant claims that the toothpick was popularized here after a businessman imported the picks from South America and hired eager Harvard University students to dine at the Union Oyster House and request the convenient teeth-cleaning tools. Union Oyster House is registered as a National Historic Landmark.
Griswold Inn (1776) Essex, Conn.
The Griswold is one of the oldest continuously run restaurants in the nation. The restaurant and inn was founded in 1776 to provide shelter and sustenance for shipyard workers building vessels for the war. The Griswold has served such esteemed guests as George Washington, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, and Katharine Hepburn. The restaurant continues to serve rustic American fare and is decorated with many of the building's original fixtures.
Fraunces Tavern (1762) New York City
The first building constructed on this property (currently located in New York City’s financial district) was the home of New York’s mayor Stephanus Van Cortlandt in 1686. Cortlandt gave the house to his son-in-law in 1700, who eventually sold it to Samuel Fraunces. Fraunces renovated the building and turned it into a tavern and restaurant in 1762.
Fraunces Tavern was a frequent meeting place of the Sons of Liberty before the American Revolution. Perhaps the most famous historical event to take place in the restaurant was on the evening of December 4, 1783, when the tavern held a congratulatory dinner for George Washington and his troops after they pushed the British army out of New York.
White Horse Tavern (1673) Newport, R.I.
The building that houses the White Horse Tavern was constructed earlier than 1673, but it didn’t open as a tavern and restaurant until that year, when William Mayes bought the property. The name "White Horse Tavern" didn’t come along until Jonathan Nichols bought the restaurant in 1730 and renamed it. It is registered as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.
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