Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Roll call of restaurants older than 100 years

The Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville is among centenarian eateries featured in a recent book.
The Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville is among centenarian eateries featured in a recent book. File photograph

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

So it's a little shocking to learn how many 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, and 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.

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  • "These old restaurants are serving really good meals, made from scratch, plus they're preserving our culture," he says.

    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 changed locations. But that's just part of the history that makes these businesses so fascinating.

    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 the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly.

    Most of that is due to typical industry pressures. Centenarian restaurants have survived not only those, but also the Great Depression and wars.

    "These older establishments have track records and history and heritage," said Grant Ross, general manager at the Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville, Pa. "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. Like Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach, which was not featured in Browne's book but has been family-owned from the start.

    "Has the fact that it's family-owned been a benefit to them? Yes, because people are nostalgic," says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst with consumer research firm NPD Group. "Why do they succeed when the industry right now is not doing well? Because this place is unique. We know it's pricey, but we are willing to pay for it because we know they will deliver on what we expect."

    Joe Weis opened a small lunch counter on Miami Beach in 1913 and years later - under a different name and in a different building after a hurricane - introduced the tasty crustaceans to his menu. At 75 cents a plate, they were a huge hit and have been ever since. On a busy night, Joe's serves up nearly 1,000 pounds of stone crabs.

    Browne traveled nearly 50,000 miles over a year and a half to compile his list, eating 163 entrées 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."

    Suzette Laboy Associated Press
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