The National Park Service is looking for a new operator of City Tavern, the colonial-theme restaurant in Old City that closed in fall 2020 as the city’s tourism market dried up during the pandemic.
The government has released a request for expressions of interest, which will be followed by a more formal request for proposal. The document, obtained by The Inquirer, asks prospective tenants about their ideas for the restaurant and its rear garden, with a deadline of April 15.
The park service, which owns the property, opened City Tavern in 1976 to coincide with the Bicentennial by restoring a circa-1773 tavern as a stately, three-story brick building. (The original building was partially destroyed by fire on March 22, 1834, and ultimately the structure was demolished in 1854.)
Food was hardly revolutionary shortly after the 1970s opening, giving City Tavern a tourist-trap reputation. Walter Staib, the chef, historian, and television personality, took it over in 1994. Business volume had been about $3 million a year, the document said.
Staib, a German-born history buff, lifelong restaurateur, and inveterate showman, brought respectability to the kitchen with scratch-made dishes such as pepperpot soup, cornmeal-fried oysters, pot pies, and venison. Critic John Mariani of Esquire named City Tavern one of the best new restaurants in America in 1994. Staib parlayed the City Tavern gig into cookbooks and two multiple-Emmy-winning PBS series. His most recent series is A Taste of History.
But then came the pandemic. Colonial-costumed waiters wearing face shields did not exactly dovetail with the charm of City Tavern’s 10 kitsch-and-memorabilia-filled dining rooms.
Contacted Friday, Staib, who just turned 76, said he was not interested in operating it again, but conceded, “I miss the tavern, so we’ll see.” He said he was open to the idea of consulting for whoever wins the contract.