Last updated on March 12th, 2018
Apparently it has become part of my life’s mission to spread the gospel of Hamilton. From cocktails to cards, prints, and pins to podcast conversations, it’s been woven into the fabric of everything I do, and now I’m bringing everyone I know along for the ride. Inevitably—as friends listen to the soundtrack, see the show, and realize their world will never be the same—they come to me with questions and for suggestions.
And whether these friends are lifelong New Yorkers or just visiting via a stop at the Richard Rodgers Theater, Hamilton heightens and reawakens the sense in everyone that history is and was happening in Manhattan, and they want to know more. So, as they succumb to Hamilton obsession one by one, I help fan their spark into a flame by taking them out for a drink and discussion at Fraunces Tavern.
As with most of the buildings in this part of town, 54 Pearl Street has gone through a number of iterations since it was erected in 1719 as a private residence at what used to be the edge of Manhattan’s southern shore. Purchased by the Society of the Sons of the Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century and almost completely reconstructed, Fraunces Tavern today is actually an amalgam of 54 Pearl and a few of its neighbors. The restaurant takes over the ground floor, while the upper two floors house a museum that details the multilayered history of the building and the men who made history within its brick walls. (Yes, sorry, still just men; we’re finally including women in the sequel, though.)
This is the spot where Washington gave a blowout farewell dinner to his troops in 1783, where the Congressional (pre-Hamilton) Treasury, Foreign Affairs, and War departments held their offices just down the street from Federal Hall during New York’s time as the nation’s capital, and where Hamilton and Burr attended a dinner for the Society of Cincinnati on July 4, 1804, just a week before their meeting on the cliffs of Weehawken.
The opening numbers of Hamilton are set within Fraunces Tavern: it’s where John Laurens is working on his third pint of Sam Adams and joshing with Mulligan and Lafayette when Burr and Hamilton walk in, leading to “My Shot” and “The Story of Tonight.” Set designer David Korins used the tavern’s chandeliers as direct inspiration; those that swing into view later in the show during the one-two-three punch of “A Winter’s Ball / Helpless / Satisfied” look an awful lot like those lining the windowsills in the Fraunces dining room.
With this history laid brick by brick, it would be easy to stop by Fraunces Tavern, grab a pint of Sam Adams, fangeek out over Hamilton for an hour or so, then hit the streets. But, no offense to John’s brewer cousin, why stop there when you can choose from a multipage beer list featuring New York breweries like Grimm, Peekskill, Finback, and Other Half, or try one of 200-something whiskeys? In a somewhat ironic twist, the tavern’s restaurant operations are run by The Porterhouse Brewing Company, an Irish company. (Though the selection’s impressive, I really wish the staff were more knowledgeable about the beers they’re serving. It can be hit or miss depending on who’s working that day.)
You can also grab a bite with your beer and not feel like you’re just picking at a sad plate of bar nachos. It might be a stretch to imagine that Hamilton and Burr snacked on bison sliders while working on their defense strategy for Levi Weeks, or that Jefferson really had James Hemings chop him up a Cobb salad as he contemplated the rights of man, but Fraunces Tavern’s menu manages to be a populist enterprise that straddles the line between Revolutionary-era farm-to-table dishes and satisfying pub fare. I can’t say no to steak frites with juicy slices of flatiron and mayo on the side for the fries, exquisitely messy reuben sandwiches with extra slaw for good measure, or an oversized pastry-topped ramekin of chicken pot pie. Happy hour oysters are certainly authentic to the time and place—at least that’s my excuse for slurping down a dozen or so.
It’s true that there’s a twinge of facsimile to the experience of being at Fraunces Tavern, as if you’re you’re walking onto a stage set or into the Hog’s Head Pub at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But what’s the alternative? To have the land razed and an office building placed on its foundations, like Jefferson’s old house at 57 Maiden Lane (aka “the room where it happens”)? City Tavern in Philadelphia is a replica built by the National Parks Service; Boston’s Green Dragon, where the Sons of Liberty were founded and the Boston Tea Party cooked up, was demolished in 1828 and is lost to the ages.
I’m grateful that someone cared enough to rebuild and restore these places when they could, even if I’m not walking the exact same floorboards as my beloved General or drinking an authentic rattle-skull. It’s enough to enjoy the moment and feel the sense of history. And if it’s good enough for Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s good enough for me. (That linked picture is in the Dingle Whiskey Bar, by the way, an intimate hallway bar that connects the main dining room to the Porterhouse bar. With cushy leather chairs and broad wooden booths, it’s a cozy spot for a winter’s afternoon.)