From May 2004Gadsby's Tavern in Alexandria is a landmark. Its two buildings were constructed around 1785 and 1792. George Washington celebrated his birthday there. Other visitors were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe. A sign on I-495 tells drivers which exit to take to get there. Inside the place looks much as it might have 200 years ago. The three dining rooms and bar have been beautifully restored with pine-plank floors and polished wooden chairs and tables. Candles in hurricane lamps provide the kind of light that diners might have had in the old days. Old prints and maps on the walls are worth studying.
Servers are in period costumes, the men in knee breeches and the women wearing smocks. Roving musicians sometimes appear. The service is uneven. On two visits it was good, but on a busy weekend evening a server returned used knives to diners, did not offer a taste of a second bottle of wine, brought a wrong main course, and otherwise seemed unfamiliar with the elements of good service.
The turn of the century--18th to 19th--could not have been a culinary golden age in the newly formed USA. Gadsby's has done a good job of finding period dishes that appeal to a modern palate. With careful ordering, an evening can be a satisfactory dining experience as well as an interesting cultural one--but it will not be cheap: Main courses range from $17.95 (vegetable lasagna) to $25.95.
Two of the starters--artichoke-and-cheese fritters with Roquefort sauce, and oysters with roasted corn and sweet pepper relish--are heavily breaded and deep-fried, with the fritters coming off better. Highly successful were the crumbly country pâté with Stilton cheese and an unexpectedly pleasing dip of jumbo crabmeat and baby artichoke hearts in a cream sauce. Martha's Puff Pastry--crisp puff pastry stuffed with Virginia ham, Scottish smoked salmon, and Chesapeake lump crabmeat with caper sauce--worked well. The good peanut soup uses coarsely crushed peanuts. Most appetizers are $7 or $8.
The star of the main courses was the pork chop, a thick center-cut smoked chop loaded with juices and flavor. Good but not in the same league were the broiled Virginia ham steak with sweet fried apples, the half duckling stuffed with fruit and presented with a Madeira gravy, and the prime rib of beef offered with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish cream. Fish was nicely done--both a filet of salmon served with a vodka-orange sauce, and monkfish with sautéed baby artichoke hearts, tomatoes, black olives, and white wine. Two unsuccessful efforts were the Gentlemen's Pye--various kinds of game with a brown sauce in a light crust, which was heavy--and the half roasted rosemary chicken, which was overwhelmed with rosemary.
The desserts, half of which are house-made, are what one would expect--crisp blueberry trifle, fruit cobbler, and Scottish molasses gingerbread, all with their fair share of whipped cream.