The six oldest restaurants in New England include taverns that served hungry travelers and a diner that fed mill workers after their shift. As is always the case with the word ‘oldest,’ some of our choices of the oldest restaurants are open to debate.
In Maine, for example, we selected the Palace Diner in Biddeford, which opened 60 years after the Cliff House in Ogunquit. But the Cliff House stopped serving meals for a long stretch. On the other hand, the White Horse Tavern in Newport, R.I., turned into a boardinghouse for a while; but still it operated as a restaurant for its boarders.
Here, then, are our choices for the six oldest restaurants in New England, one in each state. If you know of a restaurant that qualifies as the oldest in your state, please mention it in the comment section below.
Griswold Inn, Essex, Conn.
The Griswold Inn, known as ‘The Gris,’ has been feeding people since it first opened its doors in 1776. It was founded by three brothers who were not Griswolds, but named it after the Griswold family in the area. Only six families have ever run it. The British captured The Gris during the War of 1812 and used it as a base of operations. It stayed open during Prohibition with entertainment for yachtsmen.
“We are situated in the historic hamlet of Essex, nestled on the banks of the Connecticut River,” reads the Griswold Inn’s website. “Anyone familiar with Essex knows it as an extraordinary town and The Griswold Inn – a very special place.” The dark wood walls and exquisite marine paintings are what you’d expect from a historic inn that catered to sailors since the American Revolution.
The Griswold Inn was mentioned in the fourth season of Mad Men as a romantic getaway for Betty and her new husband Henry Francis. The soap opera Dark Shadows also filmed the exterior as the Collinsport Inn.
26 N. Main St., Essex, Conn.
Palace Diner, Biddeford, Maine
The Pollard Co. built the Palace Diner in Lowell, Mass., in 1927. The barrel-roofed car moved to Biddeford, Maine, and has served up comfort food ever since. Today it is one of two Pollard cars left in the United States (the other is in Bristol, N.H.), and it’s part of Biddeford’s Main Street Historic District.
The Cliff House in Ogunquit can also contend for oldest restaurant, but it hasn’t been continuously operated since it opened in 1862.
Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley are the sixth Palace Diner proprietors. They make traditional food with quality ingredients like organic lettuce and Bangs Island mussels. The Palace Diner opens until 2 p.m. serving breakfast and lunch all day, seven days a week.
18 Franklin St., Biddeford, Maine
Union Oyster House, Boston
When the Union Oyster House first opened its doors as the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House in 1826, the building already had 100 years on it. Likely built in 1704, Hopestill Capen’s dress goods business first occupied it. In 1771, Isaiah Thomas published The Massachusetts Spy from the second floor. (Thomas later decamped to Worcester during the Siege of Boston).
Presidential wannabes and an exiled French king patronized the Union Oyster House.
Daniel Webster used to consume six plates of oysters and a tumbler of brandy for lunch at the oyster house, and Sen. John F. Kennedy liked to read his Sunday paper there. The French king Louise Philippe lived in exile on the second floor in 1796.
Today the Union Oyster House serves traditional New England fare.
41-43 Union St., Boston
Hancock Inn, Hancock, N.H.
The Hancock Inn became a favorite of another U.S. president, Franklin Pierce, when his friend state Sen. David Patten bought it in 1830. It has been run continuously as an inn since it opened in 1789.
The tavern and dining room are especially cozy in the winter, as they’re heated by a fireplace and wood-burning stove. The Town of Hancock itself was once partly owned by John Hancock, and today nearly every building on Main Street is on the National Register of Historic Places. A Paul Revere bell chimes on the hour from Hancock’s meetinghouse.
33 Main St., Hancock, N.H.
White Horse Tavern, Newport, R.I.
The name ‘White Horse Tavern’ is relatively new, since it was named in 1730, nearly 80 years after Francis Brinley built the first building on the site in 1652.
Today the White Horse Tavern is not only a national landmark but the oldest tavern in America — as well as one of the oldest restaurants in New England.
William Mayes bought the property in 1673, added to the building and opened a tavern. It was used as a meeting place for the Rhode Island General Assembly, the court and city hall. Mayes’ son William, a pirate, ran the tavern into the 18th century.
Loyalists and British troops stayed there during the occupation of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island. It was used as a boarding house for many years until a benefactor donated money to the Preservation Society of Newport to restore the building. It reopened in 1953 as a tavern and restaurant.
Today the White Horse dining room serves up local seafood and produce to diners who follow its business-casual dress code.
26 Marlborough St., Newport, R.I.
Dorset Inn on the Green, Dorset, Vt.
The Dorset Inn sits on the spine of the Green Mountains near three ski resorts. Its restaurant started serving food around 1796. The first chef raised his own chickens, cows and vegetables, and bought milk from the farmer next door. Today the Dorset Inn serves bistro food with as many local ingredients as possible. Dinner served from 5:30 to 9:30 in the dining room and tavern (the dining room has a business casual dress code).
Ye Olde Tavern in nearby Manchester, Vt., opened in 1790 and beat out the Dorset Inn as the oldest restaurant in Vermont. However it lost its liquor license — and its ‘continuously operating’ claim — in 1904, not reopening until 1924.
8 Church Street & Route 30, Dorset, Vt.
Photos: Griswold Inn interior by Joe Mabel, Wikimedia commons; White Horse Tavern By Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7018372. With thanks to Thrillist for much of the research.
This story about the oldest restaurants in New England was updated in 2020.