Last Updated on February 1, 2024

Fraunces Tavern oozes history from every corner of its aged and storied walls. Anyone visiting New York City should put the lower Manhattan eatery on their must-do list.

I am a history buff. My travels are never complete without delving into every location’s compelling history. When my wife asked me to accompany her on a business trip to the city, I jumped at the chance.

On our free day, we chose the tavern for dinner. My wife had dined there before and fallen in love with the place. She knew full well that I would too.

Fraunces Tavern History

I was surprised the tavern occupied a stately three-story brick building on a busy street corner rather than a typical colonial clapboard. Once inside, it was clear that in many respects time had stood still within its hallowed rooms. Built as a home in 1719, it began operating as a tavern in 1762.

The tavern’s past is deeply intertwined with the American Revolution.

It was here that New York’s Sons of Liberty gathered as they plotted and planned their rebellion against the British crown. Fraunces Tavern continued to be a regular meeting place for American patriots throughout the war.

During the disastrous New York campaign, the tavern served as the busy headquarters for George Washington’s Continental Army. 

In response to Alexander Hamilton’s dismantling of British Battery Park cannons in 1775, A British warship in New York harbor sent a cannonball crashing through the tavern’s roof.

It was thrilling to walk in the footsteps of our nation’s founding fathers, looking at doors that our country’s first President walked through. Rooms where men of vision and audacity dared to challenge the world’s greatest empire and strive to establish a bold new nation.

Saving the Tavern

Fraunces Tavern Museum.
Fraunces Tavern Museum. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Like many old structures suffering from the ravages of time and “progress,” the tavern was almost lost by the late 1800s. It has served many roles through the years, as a warehouse, boarding house, meeting place and more.

New York City was growing by leaps and bounds and the dilapidated tavern building stood on valuable real estate. In the 1800s, the area around the tavern was a booming commercial center with merchants, shipping agents, freight forwarders and a host of other businesses. Floors were added to the tavern to provide rooms for the district’s many workers. Gradually, the building fell into disrepair and faded into obscurity.

By 1900, it was slated for demolition to make way for the skyscrapers that would soon be a fixture of Manhattan. Thankfully, concerned citizens, aware of Fraunces’ unique place in history, rallied to save it. Various organizations like Daughters of the American Revolution and Sons of the Revolution led the way.

The building was purchased and converted into a museum and then underwent an extensive facelift in 1907 supervised by early historic preservation architect, William Mersereau.

The remodeling was more of a reconstruction than a restoration. Using parts of the remaining walls and basing the design on typical buildings of the period, the efforts were considered faithful to the original tavern’s structure.

In the 1960s and 70s, tall office buildings dotted the skyline and real estate demands again threatened the tavern. To save the building, in 1965, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission proclaimed it a New York City landmark. In 1977 and 1978, the surrounding city block bounded by Pearl Street, Water Street, Broad Street and Coenties Slip was added as a New York City Landmark and placed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

Finally, the tavern building itself was added to the NRHP register on March 6, 2008, as its own entity.

Fraunces Tavern Rooms

Lafayettes Hideout Bar inside Fraunces Tavern New York City.
Lafayettes Hideout Bar inside Fraunces Tavern New York City. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Restoration or reconstruction aside, Fraunces Tavern reflects an authentic American colonial vibe and there’s no mistaking the historical gravitas permeating the tavern. It was a rainy day on my visit, giving parts of the establishment’s rambling interior a dark and sheltered aura reminiscent of the storied taverns of yesteryear. 

The historic tavern sports four bars, including a piano bar on the upper floor. Also on site are nine dining areas, including some strictly for private functions, each with its own unique décor and and character.

Two fireplaces grace the large Tallmadge Dining Room on the main floor with private tables for two and longer tables for bigger parties. We chose a small table alongside a fireplace with great views of the dining room and streetside windows.

The Bissell Room, named in honor of the ancestors of Revolutionary War Private Isaac Bissell, is the largest event space in the building. It offers a private bar and the entire room is dominated by a painted mural depicting New York City circa 1717.

The elegant and intimate Washington Room honoring our first President holds up to 24 guests and is intended for formal dining venues or conference meetings. It is richly appointed with a long banquet table, crystal chandeliers and a period fireplace.

The Dingle Whiskey Bar looks like the private study of a small mansion. Named for the quaint Irish town of Dingle, the bar, with its cozy atmosphere, can accommodate up to 25 patrons and features comfortable fireplace seating. This dark yet inviting hideaway is surrounded by extensive shelves showcasing over 500 whiskeys offering connoisseurs the opportunity to enjoy their libations from a spectacular selection of quality liquors.

The charming Wine Room is nestled a few steps down into the heart of Fraunces Tavern. It can also serve up to 25 guests in a livelier atmosphere. The room has a custom butcher block table with high-top seating where guests are surrounded by an exquisite collection of global premium wines. The Wine Room sits just a few steps away from the tavern’s famous Independence Bar.

Lafayettes Hideout Bar is so-named after the bold and famous French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette, who played a major role in the American Revolution. This full-service bar is gin and cocktail-focused accommodating up to 85 guests. Lafayettes can also be accessed from private entrances off Water Street.

The upstairs Piano Bar is an elegant, high-end cocktail establishment with New York Style Cabaret lounge seating for up to 75 guests. It opened in 2021 and features live music performances.

Fraunces Tavern Museum

Alexander Hamilton's Desk at Fraunces Tavern.
Alexander Hamilton’s Desk at Fraunces Tavern. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Arriving early for dinner gave us plenty of time to visit the Fraunces Tavern Museum encompassing the second and third floors.

Established in 1907, this Early American museum has served admirably to not only showcase the storied history of the tavern, but also highlight the story of America’s earliest days and the visionary men who helped forge a powerful new nation.

The museum has nine small halls, each with a fascinating and unique story to tell. There is much here about George Washington of course, including numerous articles, paintings and depictions, a lock of his hair, and even one of Martha Washington’s shoes.

One of the more fascinating rooms is the Long Room, restored to its Revolutionary War appearance. I noted the rough-hewn planked floor and the rustic tables were more reflective of a colonial tavern, sharply contrasting with the many accruements of today’s dining establishment.

I felt goosebumps as I realized that it was in this very room on December 4, 1783, that General George Washington held a final farewell dinner at the tavern for his officers. Here, their emotional and grateful leader gave his profound and heartfelt thanks for their many sacrifices and devotion to duty in their successful war of independence before discharging them from service so they could return home to family and loved ones.

Fraunces Tavern’s role in history was finished yet.

Not only did the tavern play a major role in the post-war negotiations with Great Britain, but it also served as a crucial meeting place for the conduct of our early government. Before the Constitution and the establishment of our republic, the 13 diverse and often divisive colonies were united under a weak Articles of Confederation.

New York was the early capital of our nation, but had no public governmental buildings. The business of running our fledgling country was conducted from private homes and public gathering places. First and foremost of these was Fraunces Tavern, serving as the site for three government departments. John Jay and Henry Knox headed the Departments of Foreign Affairs and War respectively. Offices of the Board of Treasury were also located in the tavern’s upstairs.

It was here where men like Alexander Hamilton succeeded in forming a new, better, and stronger federal government; his presence in the tavern was often seen. Both he and Aaron Burr attended a dinner at Fraunces hosted by the Society of the Cincinnati on July 4, 1804, just a week before their famous duel.

Period paintings abound throughout the museum. These include John Ward Dunsmore’s collection of painted scenes of the American Revolution and the Elizabeth and Stanley DeForest Scott gallery of portraits of George Washington.

The Clinton Room recreates a Federalist-style dining room and the McEntee Gallery highlights the history of the Sons of the Revolution.  

Another room tells the story of the tavern from its founding, storied past, near destruction and its history up to the modern day. The museum also presents many periodic exhibitions reflecting the birth and early growth of our nation.

Governing the Nation from Fraunces Tavern Room portrays the Department of Foreign Affairs when it was headquartered in the tavern providing insight into the many diplomatic, military, and financial challenges our nation faced during these early formative years.

The small museum packs quite a punch with respect to our nation’s founding and was an unexpected delight for me. I could have spent an entire day just exploring all of the exhibits.

Dining at the Tavern

Tallmadge Room Main Dining Area at Fraunces Tavern.
Tallmadge Room Main Dining Area at Fraunces Tavern. Photo by Michael Kompanik

I would be remiss in not sharing that Fraunces Tavern was a fabulous dining experience in addition to a fascinating walk through history. The food here is not your ordinary pub fare by any means. Cold appetizers such as Pintxos Flights were delicious and hot appetizers included New England Clam Chowder, Maryland Crab Cake, and gourmet Bacon Wrapped Shrimp with chorizo, roasted fingerling potatoes, grilled pineapple, shishito peppers, and spicy bourbon honey.

Savory flatbreads and tasty bites like Lobster Mac and Cheese are popular items. My wife and I shared a pear and arugula salad with watercress, dried cranberries, crushed Marcona almonds with an apple-berry dressing.

For dinner, my wife selected a perfectly-prepared Pan-Seared Organic Salmon accompanied with butternut squash purée, roasted corn, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, sautéed Swiss chard, crème fraîche and crushed Marcona almonds.

My entree was a popular house specialty: the Slow Roasted Chicken Pot Pie. This delight was a hearty dish loaded with large chunks of chicken along with carrots, celery, onions and peas. It could easily have been shared by two.   

Our visit to Fraunces Tavern was the highlight of our New York City trip and will continue to be one of my favorite venues each time we are in Manhattan. Great food, warm and fascinating atmosphere, and marvelous history all blended are just too good to pass up.

Author

  • Michael Kompanik

    Michael Kompanik is a retired Navy Captain, a managing editor of Rovology Online Magazine and a freelance travel writer. He currently resides in San Diego California with his wife Noreen who is also a travel writer and editor. Together they have traveled to such far off places as Europe, Thailand, Central America, Africa and more. Michael’s wide-ranging interests include history, nature, travel, photography, and, of course, military matters.