Tuesday, March 10, 2009

DINING OUT: Philadelphia: City Tavern

Written & Photographed by Ellen McGlynn

How do you get two six-year-olds to eat a rabbit? List it on a large menu under mysterious candlelight nestled among foot-high pewter goblets already filled with ice water and have it served by a man wearing breeches and a ponytail offering musketball butter with your sweet potato biscuits.

If you are looking for one dining experience that will make a lasting impression on your little ones when you take them on that eventual pilgrimage to the Liberty Bell, there’s no doubt about it, City Tavern is the place to go. As an adult, I have had the opportunity to dine at City Tavern numerous times under varying conditions—lunch, dinner, parties—and one thing has always held true: it is an exquisite adventure through time as much as it is a delightful experience for the palate.

You will want to dress the gang a little extra special for a night out at City Tavern, for the moment you enter, you will be greeted with elegant chandeliers, stately furniture, costumed hosts and servers, and even a live period performance by their resident harpist. Despite all the formality, rest assured kids ARE welcome, as is evidenced by their award-winning children’s menu.

In its time, the original structure (which partially burned down and was subsequently demolished in the mid-1800’s but emerged from the ashes according to the original architect’s plans in 1976) played host to our country’s political forebears including George Washington, whose pre-inauguration dinner was hosted in the upstairs ballroom. The rooms are elegantly decorated and dimly lit as would have been true to the period, and the table setting is a veritable breeding ground for discussion from children who have never experienced true Colonial dining before. Take your time entering and exiting the building to appreciate all of the Colonial hardware, classic d├ęcor, period musical instruments, and one-of-a-kind gourmet gifts.

While a very admirable children’s menu is offered, I would highly recommend reading aloud all of the options off the adult menu to raise a few eyebrows and encourage the expansion of your family’s palate. Our youngest diners fell hook, line, and sinker, not for the Paillard of Salmon (though I’m sure it would have been an excellent choice), but for the Braised Rabbit legs served over a bed of wide noodles. Word of warning: Beware of portion sizes. Even an adult might find challenge with finishing the heaping rabbit dishes that graced our table as well as the incredibly sumptuous Tavern Lobster Pie that appeared to include the meat of an entire lobster and no less than a half dozen large shrimp in a rich buttery cream sauce baked inside a deep puff pastry crust and served in a steaming hot pewter casserole dish. If you are a lobster-loving family, I would highly recommend ordering this seafood masterpiece as a centerpiece for your table and serving it family-style. Otherwise, ask your server to take leftovers home in one of their delightfully playful yet elegant takeout creations. Never have I had so much confidence in a take-home container nor have I had such fun carrying one. Am I crazy for being so impressed? Though we did not have room for dessert, we had plenty of leftover appetite for the history lesson our server provided at the end of our meal, and we left feeling fully satisfied.

Be sure to pick up a City Tavern cookbook on your way out so that you can try your hand at recreating this fabulous fare at home. While I can only speak for the elegance of Chef Staib’s first published masterpiece, he has now amassed a collection of three historically significant cookbooks and has a fourth on the horizon this spring. History in the kitchen is such an excellent way of keeping kids interested in food as well as attaching meaning to what can sometimes just become boring date-memorization in school. If you want to impress your family and friends with a mealtime warmth they will remember forever, go Colonial.

Before you go, visit City Tavern's wonderful website at www.citytavern.com.

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