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 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. But that’s just part of the history that makes these businesses so fascinating.
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.
And most of that is due to typical industry pressures. Centenarian restaurants have buffeted not only that, but also The Great Depression and multiple recessions and wars.
“These older establishments have track record and history and heritage,” said 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. Like Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, which was not featured in Browne’s book but has been family-owned from the start when it opened as a mom-and-pop fish house. Today, it’s a must-stop spot where wearing a bib over fine-dining attire is the norm.
“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. And it’s an experience.”
Joe Weiss 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 damaged the original location — 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 to some 1,700 customers willing to pay market price for a plate.
Joe’s is a fourth-generation family-owned restaurant that treats its customers like family. And vice versa.
“Our customers will tell us when things aren’t right and when things are right,” said Stephan Sawitz, the restaurant’s chief operations officer and the great-grandson of Weiss.
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.”
His advice for the next 100 restaurants over 100? Don’t radically change the menu.
“In a lot of cases, people order a dish that they had one time or another,” Browne said, adding that diners return to spots they went to as a child. “It’s comfort food that comes with memories.”