Eateries and Drinkeries: The Oldest Food Heritage Sites Around

Reader Contribution by Meredith Sayles Hughes

Food heritage fans quickly are drawn to the category “drinkeries,” parallel with the category “eateries,” of course, and why not? Every colonial town in the US boasts it is the home of America’s “oldest tavern,” and some of these claims are dubious indeed, dare we say. But we are not here to choose a winner. Rather, we want to underscore that places where people have long gathered to eat and drink are among the most pleasing, and most easily identified food heritage sites.

Salzburg, Austria

One of the oldest such places we know of is in Salzburg, Austria, built inside a monastery, and welcoming custom since 803, apparently. In its earliest days, this ancient beer cellar, St. Peter Stiftskeller, may have served up a brew or two to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and later, Chris Columbus, the 1492 guy. Since then, it has expanded well beyond the cave level and features a range of banquet rooms, as well as “lavish” public dining areas. It offers a Mozart lunch and dinner special menu with musical performers, though, curiously, does not assert in any write-ups that that most famous of Austrians supped or imbibed here.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Another oldie but goodie is in Edinburgh, Scotland,  the Sheep Heid Inn, established in 1360. Its name derives from a snuffbox given by then James VI to the landlord, the box decorated with a sheep or ram’s head, known as heid, pronounced “heed” in Scotland. James and his mum, Mary Queen of Scots, both were said to be regulars here, but then, George Washington slept in far more beds during the Revolutionary War than were days in the calendar.  In fact, poor Mary had little chance to visit inns, as she was a prisoner more or less non stop from 1566, the year her son was born, until she lost her head in 1587. 

The Inn clearly operated under another name up to the time James made his gift, sometime in the late 1500s, or early 1600s, and once he became King of England in 1603 he doubtless did not frequent his old haunt.

Boston, Massachusetts

And so we come to Boston, Massachusetts, and the Bell-in-Hand Tavern, “since 1795.” Jimmy Wilson, the town crier for 50 years, finally retired and opened his tavern, which featured only frothy ale, no spirits. According to the record, the brew was served up in two mugs, one for the ale, and one for the froth. Ask Paul Revere, a big fan. 

For those unfamiliar with the Town Crier concept, he, and occasionally she, walked the streets in pre-electronic times, carrying a brass hand bell, ringing it to gain attention, prior to delivering announcements at the behest of the court. Proud to have been such a crier, Wilson included the image of a hand with a bell in his tavern’s sign.

For more about food history and heritage visitThe Food Museum.