I like to eat in eighteenth century historic taverns. I have great memories of evenings spent enjoying gambols at Chowning’s Tavern in Williamsburg and eating at the other restored taverns in the colonial town. Then there’s City Tavern in Philadelphia where America’s founders argued the principles of liberty and democratic society over steaming plates of seafood and stew. Or Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia where George Washington and other presidents from Virginia danced away an evening at gala balls.
This past summer I dined in another tavern in an unexpected place — Kentucky. The Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, Kentucky, was built in 1779 and supposedly has never closed its doors (though it experienced a fire in the late 1990s and was closed briefly to repair the damage). Some historians have called it the oldest western stagecoach stop. At one point it stood near the end point for a stagecoach road that led east to Philadelphia. As with the eastern taverns mentioned above, a list of illustrious Americans passed through the building over its long history. Some are people you’d expect, revolutionary hero George Rogers Clark whose family lived in nearby Louisville, and Daniel Boone, the early pioneer of the west who is associated with the state. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and songwriter Stephen Foster, who supposedly composed the song “My Old Kentucky Home” while staying with relatives in Bardstown, also visited the Talbott, as did future presidents Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln. Then there’s artist John James Audubon, a drunk outlaw Jesse James (who legend says shot the holes that still exist in a mural in one of the dining rooms), and even WWII General George Patton.
One of the most colorful personalities to stay at the inn was the exiled King Louis Philippe I, last king to rule France before driven to exile. (I’m not exactly sure what he was doing in Kentucky)
Of course while in Kentucky I had to try a classic regional dish called the “hot brown.” Originally created in the Brown Hotel in Louisville in 1926, the open-faced sandwich has become a standard offering on northern Kentucky menus. A variation on Welsh rarebit, the hot brown consists of turkey and bacon on crisp bread and covered in a heavy yellow cheesy Mornay sauce. I’d be less than honest if I said I plan to order the dish anytime again in the future, but it was worth the foody adventure. It’s not exactly a light meal, but is comfort food extraordinaire. So, if you find yourself in Bardstown, you should plan to eat at the Talbott for simple Southern food, but maybe pass on the hot brown. You can also stay in one of the five rooms, aptly named for the famous travelers from the past.