Gadsby’s Tavern was on my list of historic sites to visit for many years, but I could visit it any time so never did. Finally, I can cross it off the list. The occasion of a friend’s birthday celebration brought me there for a unique dining experience and tour of the museum.
I live in George Washington country, northern Virginia, where his shadow looms large. The historic city of Alexandria, Virginia, sits several miles up the Potomac River from Mount Vernon, the restored Washington plantation, and just south of Washington, D.C. When George Washington “went to town” it was Alexandria that he visited. With its cobblestone streets and historic Christ Church completed in 1773, the city boasts a rich and fascinating history. Luminaries from American history passed through town, some, like Robert E. Lee, lived there for a time. Many dined and danced in the local establishments such as Gadsby’s Tavern.
Marylander John Wise built a tavern, now Gadsby’s Tavern, in 1785 on a lot that had been the site of varying types of ordinaries and taverns since the mid-1700s. It became a thriving center of business, politics and social life in the area. Seven years later he built the City Tavern Hotel next door. Englishman John Gadsby leased and operated the buildings from 1796-1808. A typical eighteenth century tavern and hostelry, Gadsby’s hosted a whole spectrum of social events, including balls, theatrical and musical entertainments, and civic assemblies. Men of varying sorts gathered in the taproom to socialize and catch up on the news of the day and discuss politics.
Perhaps the most prominent visitor to grace the establishment was President Washington who, along with wife Martha, attended the annual Birthnight Ball held in his honor in 1798 and 1799. Thomas Jefferson held his presidential inaugural banquet in the ballroom in 1801. Positioned so close to the new nation’s capital, the tavern hosted quite a few early politicians including the first six presidents — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams — and other notables such as the Marquis de Lafayette.
Both buildings have been restored to their late eighteenth-century appearance and are open for tours and other special events throughout the year, including tea with Martha Washington, a rum punch challenge and perhaps the highlight of the social year at Gadsby’s, the annual Washington Birthnight Ball with a banquet, English country dancing, and an appearance by George and Martha Washington.
So, you can perhaps dance where Washington danced… I use the word perhaps because of the fact that major pieces of the original ballroom are in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1917 the tavern building was in major disrepair and the Museum negotiated with its owners to buy important architectural elements from the hotel’s second floor ballroom, including the musicians gallery, mantelpieces and original woodwork. They are featured in the Met’s period room called “Alexandria Ballroom” as examples of colonial craftsmanship.
Today Gadsby’s Tavern is also a working restaurant that serves colonial fare of fine Virginia food and drink including crab cakes, Sally Lunn bread, peanut soup, fried oysters, ham biscuits, and George Washington’s favorite, grilled breast of duck with corn pudding.
George Washington may never have slept there, but his dining and dancing visits are well-documented and Gadsby’s can boast of their famous visitor with historical accuracy. If you want to eat where Washington ate, you can’t eat in his dining room at Mount Vernon, but you can eat at Gadsby’s.