“They don’t want the mundane, cookie-cutter experience,” Roche says. “And there is a renaissance of consumers preferring historically authentic experiences.”
OF HISTORIC PROPORTIONS
Yet it’s a delicate balance. A place like City Tavern
in Philadelphia—built in 1772 and the first unofficial
meeting place for the First Continental Congress—
prides itself in serving food inspired by 18th-century
customs, like cornmeal-fried oysters with herbed
remoulade. But Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan—
where, yes, George Washington cocktailed—serves
a very fusion (and, frankly, horrific-sounding) prosciutto salad with radicchio, endive, frisee, pine nuts
and chipotle-cumin vinaigrette. I kid you not.
So what’s a food lover to do? Would I have remembered the little woman and her Lillet if my American
Hotel experience had been marred by radicchio with
chipotle-cumin vinaigrette? Probably not.
“Historic hotels come in all shapes and sizes,”
says Roche. “And all quality levels and price points.”
That’s why at M Restaurant, which is at the Morris House Hotel in Philadelphia, “the place is only
historic to the eye,” says chef David Katz. “Once you
come into the dining room, you could be in any contemporary restaurant in any major city.”
But go there on a pleasant day, take a table in
the courtyard, and you’ll understand why guests
stay at the hotel, which is on the National Register
of Historic Places.
“The hotel guests are here to capture that feel,”
says Katz. “People target coming here because of
the history—but then they appreciate that we don’t
churn our own butter.”
So instead of dining on a chicken pot pie served
in a black cast iron pan while sitting on a hard pine
bench, you can kick back in a secret garden and
enjoy the Colonial architecture while swooning over
a tender halibut with black truffle and leek ragout,
and sautéed new potatoes.
Nathan Beauchamp, the chef at 1789 in Washington, D. C., also tries to strike a balance. Sure,
you’ll find occasional specials like prime rib with
Yorkshire pudding on a cold winter night, and that’s
a lovely match for a place where the back of the bar
is fashioned from a 16th-century monks’ bench.
But he also knows that people want simple, contemporary cooking.
“We have a lot of special occasion dining here,”
he says. “People come here one or two times a year—
they don’t want to come to a place that’s stodgy and
old. You want to make it modern and cool.”
As modern and cool as you can in a restaurant with
Currier and Ives prints and a dining area called the
Manassas Room, where the walls are lined with reclaimed siding from an 1860s barn. Beauchamp sees
it like this: “It’s like if you’re going out to a country
inn. It’s a beautiful place. You’re having a cocktail.
The breeze is blowing. Then you look at the menu—
and it’s not appetizing at all.”
“You have to meet the needs of today’s travelers,”
says Roche. “These are not museums. Same with
food. We’re not cooking with the same ingredients as
in the 1800s.”
Yet, he says, people want to connect with the past.
The traditional gaslight fixtures at 1789, for example,
bring back an Old World charm that, Beauchamp says,
“definitely fit the motif of what Georgetown is.”
Fitting the motif is the theme of the recent renovation of the Hotel Viking in Newport, R.I. The design
of each of the 12 redone rooms is inspired by local
Newport mansions—and named after them.
“It’s the Gilded Age with all the modern amenities,” says Marlen Scalzi, the sales and marking director, like high-speed Internet and flat-screen TVs in
the rooms. She should know—she grew up in the hotel. Her father was the general manager, which made
her, she says, “a rampant little brat,” running around
Left: The Hotel
Viking serves tea in
the dining room and
in the lobby.