George Washington may have slept there, but apparently not enough of his latter-day countrymen followed up with dinner reservations.

The King George II Inn, dating to 1681 and dubiously promoted as the nation's oldest continuously operating inn, shut down in Bristol Borough last month.

Its owners, deep in tax debt and facing foreclosure, are shopping the historic property, citing three years of economic bust.

According to documents filed last week in Bucks County Court, the business owes more than $42,000 in taxes dating to 2008, and has missed its last two monthly loan payments of $13,625.76.

"The recession over the past 3 years has taken a tremendous toll on [the inn] and on Bristol in general," co-owner John Caparrelli wrote in an April 27 letter to his creditors, a Colorado couple who sold him the business in 2004.

The May 25 shuttering has rattled a town whose boosters have declared it on a path of civic renaissance ever since the porn palace down the block closed in the 1980s.

To some, the inn's closing confirms a self-loathing "we're not New Hope" attitude about their town's cultural offerings. Others, noting that other local eateries are surviving, see it as a fleeting dip in Bristol's ongoing, if gradual, ascent.

But there is no dispute that the ancient borough lost something special.

"I'll be honest with you: I was furious," said Borough Council Vice President Robyn Trunell, whose West Ward includes the King George. "I was furious that there was no warning of this closing - this restaurant that's been in existence for 329 years."

Fallen silent is a hulking riverfront anchor at Mill and Radcliffe Streets, a place where generations had celebrated wedding rehearsals, anniversaries, First Communions, and other special dates - a once-bustling setting of random-width plank floors, old stone fireplaces, and wide, wooden handrails.

"You went there when you wanted to show off a little," Trunell said. "You would be seated and have a view of the Delaware River that was wonderful, beautiful. It was a bygone era in there."

Former general manager Jeffrey Brenner, whose family owned the inn from 1979 to 2004, said he remembered marveling at the area codes of the phone numbers left by diners seeking reservations. North Jersey and beyond was not unusual, he said, for the King George was a draw.

"I referred to it as the Sears store of the mall," said Brenner, who now lives in Colorado. "I can't imagine Bristol without it. It's shocking. I'm still in shock."

Both town and tavern trace their histories to 1681.

That year, a man named Samuel Clift was granted 262 acres in what is now the borough. One condition was that Clift maintain a ferry between his land and Burlington, plus a public house on the Pennsylvania side.

Whether that makes it the nation's oldest inn has often been disputed.

"I am always leery when anybody makes a claim like that," Bristol historian Harold D. Mitchener said. "I always say that it is one of the oldest continuously used sites for an inn. Somebody can always call you on that."

In the 1980s, any number of area inns laid claim to the same distinction, including the William Penn Inn in Gwynedd, the Perkiomen Inn in Collegeville, the Brick Hotel in Newtown, and the General Wayne Inn in Merion.

Indeed, Realtor Sandra Farry, who is handling the $1.35 million listing for the 22,000-square-foot King George, said Friday that she had just received a documented correction from an out-of-state historical group she declined to identify.

"We're going to go with 'one of the oldest,' " she said.

Samuel Clift's Ferry House, historians speculate, was probably more gruel-and-stool than bed-and-breakfast, but it was a start.

It served as a stopover along King's Highway between Philadelphia and New York, and around 1757 hosted a youthful Washington, en route to Connecticut from Virginia. In time, four other presidents (John Adams, James Madison, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore) would eat or sleep there.

The inn was rebuilt and renamed the George the Second Hotel in 1765. Legend has it that during the Revolutionary War, Continental soldiers spotted the hotel's sign and shot it up until it fell from its frame. The owner quickly renamed it the Fountain House.

It became the Delaware House in the 1890s, then Ye Olde Delaware House, then the King George II Inn in the 1970s as ownership continued to change.

Bristol, too, was changing. As Lower Bucks County lost nearly a third of its industrial base in the late 1900s, a push began to convert factories into offices, to restore once-grand old homes along the river, and to generally spruce up the downtrodden borough.

A watershed of sorts came in the 1980s when an embarrassing landmark near the King George - Bucks County's only X-rated movie theater - was converted into what is now the Bristol Riverside Theatre, a thriving regional site for professional stage productions.

"Our patrons spend over $1 million a year in local businesses," said Amy Kaissar, the theater's managing director, and the King George was a big part of that.

"It's right around the corner, so we had groups that had luncheons and dinners there before performances," she said. "You hate to see any vacant restaurants and storefronts in the neighborhood, and we hope that they will be able to reopen quickly."

That is anything but certain, for the King George's last change of ownership was not as successful as that of the neighboring theater.

In 2004, 25-year owners Leonid and Mary Demenczuk sold the property for $1.18 million to Caparrelli and his wife, Geri. Part of the deal was a 10-year, $1.2 million loan from the Demenczuks to the new owners.

By 2008, the taxes were going unpaid. A year ago, the Caparrellis asked their congressman, Rep. Patrick Murphy, to help them keep the business afloat.

"I met with the owners and connected them with the right folks in the Small Business Administration to try to find a lender who could restructure their mortgage," recalled Murphy, a nearby resident, who celebrated his daughter's baptism at the King George. "Unfortunately, their situation was already too far gone."

The Caparrellis and their attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In April, John Caparrelli appealed to the Demenczuks to restructure the loan, including extending its length, court records show.

"People are just not going out for upscale dining on a regular basis," the letter said. "Realistically, we cannot continue to pay $13,625.76 per month or anywhere near this amount."

The Demenczuks declined the request. On May 7, their lawyer sent the Caparrellis a foreclosure notice.

"The Demenczuks are retired individuals who rely on this payment to fund their living expenses," said their lawyer, Thomas J. Smith III. "While we have not come to an agreement, there is ongoing negotiation here. We filed because we have not been able to work anything out."

The ideal outcome, Smith said, would be for the inn to sell quickly, enabling the Demenczuks to recover their loan and the Caparrellis to pay their taxes and recover a share of their equity.

The wider hope in Bristol is that an old and venerable friend will reopen its doors.

"It's one of those things that has always been there, and you would always expect to be able to go there," said historian Mitchener, at 71 a lifelong Bristol resident.

"It's like you could always go to Grandma's house when you were a kid," he said, "and suddenly it's gone."

Contact staff writer Larry King
at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.