published Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Book profiles restaurants that are centenarians

  • photo
    "A Century of Restaurants: Stories and Recipes from 100 of Americas Most Historic and Successful Restaurants" by Rick Browne includes the nations oldest (White Horse Tavern in Newport, R.I., established in 1673), the youngest (the Pleasant Point Inn in Lovell, Maine, opened in 1911), and many in between.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Conventional wisdom has it that many restaurants never make it to their first birthday, never mind their 100th.

So it’s a little shocking just how many have done not only that, but have thrived well beyond 100 years. Fascination with what sets these culinary centenarians apart is what prompted Rick Browne to dig into American restaurant history, collecting the stories of some of the nation’s oldest eateries.

“These places are American culinary history,” says Browne, who made it a mission to identify restaurants — including taverns, grills, barbecue joints — that are at least 100 years old.

And his recent book, “A Century of Restaurants: Stories and Recipes from 100 of America’s Most Historic and Successful Restaurants,” includes the nation’s oldest (White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, established in 1673), the youngest (the Pleasant Point Inn in Lovell, Maine, opened in 1911), and many in between.

“These old restaurants are serving really good meals, made from scratch, plus they’re preserving our culture,” he says. “And we can’t lose that.”

Tallying restaurant centenarians is a tricky business. Browne counted any business that serves food — such as taverns — and came up with more than 250. In 2010, the National Restaurant Association and the Nation’s Restaurant News focused on eating establishments (rather than bars and taverns that serve food) and came up with 140.

Further complicating Browne’s search, several of the restaurants he found have changed their names over the years. Some have even changed locations after fires, earthquakes or hurricanes damaged the original structures.

Whatever the exact count, the numbers are surprising in part because the restaurant industry has a notoriously short survival rate. More than a quarter of new restaurants close within the first year, and that jumps to nearly two-thirds by the end of three years, according to research by the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration.

“These older establishments have track records and history and heritage,” says Grant Ross, general manager at The Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville, Penn. “This building has been here for 270 years and people have been coming here to dine, stay and to drink for 270 years. And just because there is a recession that is not a reason to stop.”

Why do so many succeed? One often-repeated theme is family. A majority of the centenarian restaurants have been in one family for decades.

“People are nostalgic,” says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst with consumer research firm NPD Group.

Browne traveled nearly 50,000 miles over a year and a half to compile his list, eating 163 entrees along the way. A few of the 250 restaurants he found have since closed down, he admits.

“If we lose them, we would have lost a lot. All you’re going to see is fast food places, yellow arches and red roofs.”

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