In an industry vexed by constant change, the White Horse Tavern of Newport, RI has weathered it all. Including the American Revolution!
Established as a tavern in 1673, the large gambrel-roofed red Colonial has sat on the corner of Farewell and Marlborough streets in Newport for 350 years. And according to historic accounts, once quartered Tories and British troops during their occupation of Newport, around the time of the Battle of Rhode Island.
The time-polished wide-beam floors, roaring ample fireplace and period-style furniture has been the setting for meals and events enjoyed by everyone from French General Rochambeau, an ally in George Washington’s battle against the British, to Ben Franklin, whose brother had a printing press around the corner, says GM Jarrad LaPlante.
“When you ask me who’s eaten here I have to say, everybody,” LaPlante says. “People just kind of flock here as a destination experience they plan for.”
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, LaPlante offers a glimpse into the operation of the oldest tavern in the United States and the 10th oldest in the world.
Boxerbrand: Let’s start with the obvious question. What’s it like managing the oldest tavern in the United States?
LaPlante: The short answer is, it’s a lot of fun. There’s only one White Horse Tavern and it’s so iconic and unique that you can’t help but love it. I took over as GM in August 2020 and when they brought me I just clicked. I’ve been in Rhode Island all my life, and I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 14. Prior to joining the White Horse Tavern I worked for the Newport Restaurant Group at both Hemenway’s and Waterman Grille in Providence, Rhode Island as well as Boat House in Tiverton. So I had a deep history of working in fine dining in Rhode Island before I arrived.
Boxerbrand: How has White Horse Tavern achieved such super longevity?
LaPlante: I think it’s a combination of things. The building itself has such a rich history and has been so well preserved that it’s a tourist destination for that alone. But on top of that we have a strong tradition for our fine dining, service and commitment. White Horse Tavern was owned by the same family for 200 years, which was the Nichols family, until about 10 years ago when Jeffrey Farrar purchased it. I think he has also helped maintain consistency in our brand. We haven’t made a ton of changes, but, we took the opportunity during the pandemic to refurbish our floors, which are original to the building and which were covered in whale oil. We stripped off the oil and brought back the luster and color of our famous pine floors, which were made from old ships. It lifts the ambience and looks beautiful.
Boxerbrand: What is your most time-honored dish?
LaPlante: I would have to say it’s our Beef Wellington. This dish has been on our menu for 50 years. I tell people that cooking isn’t really a science, except for the Wellington, which really is. It’s much more like baking and we’ve perfected it to the point that we’re famous for it. At one point during the pandemic we toyed with the idea of making the Wellington to-go, but we didn’t wind up pursuing it because it requires a convection oven to properly heat the pastry.
Boxerbrand: In fact, the White Horse Tavern waited to reopen until indoor dining was again allowed. Why was that?
LaPlante: The decision to remain closed was made by the previous GM because it was felt that our diners are coming here for the experience of walking inside the tavern and experiencing the physicality of the space. Instead, we waited until we could safely reopen while maintaining the social distancing regulations week to week. We kept up with the rules and went from 33 percent to 66 percent capacity and up, depending on the regulations.
Boxerbrand: Who are your customers and how do you attract them?
LaPlante: During the tourist season approximately 90 percent are tourists and first time guests who planned a visit. And during the off season that ratio changes to 70 percent tourists and 30 percent residents. People just sort of flock here. There was a time when we had an older clientele and a more formal dress code. But now we’re business casual and we’re seeing a real uptick in younger customers who think our history is very cool.
Boxerbrand: How do you assess today’s restaurant climate?
LaPlante: I’ve been in hospitality for 20 years and I’m always amazed how things change, even for a historic restaurant that has been here for as long as we have. I notice that customers today seem to more in a rush than they were 10 years ago, and we’ve also experienced inflation in our costs which we are forced to pass on to the customer, unfortunately, with higher plating prices. But the prices have fluctuated so much that whenever we get a delivery of wine, for example, I wince as I look to see how much it’s gone up this time.
Boxerbrand: How was business this past year?
LaPlante: On the positive side, I can confidently say that 2022 was the highest-grossing year. Part of this was due to the higher prices, but we also made some changes that helped drive revenue. For example, we eliminated private events because we found that they weren’t as financially viable as focusing on small groups of two, four or six diners. Smaller groups are in and out faster and we’re able to turn the tables faster. And it’s better for our small kitchen to serve small groups than to stop everything to put in an order for a table of 40. This change has made a big difference in our bottom line, and our customers love it.
Boxerbrand: And the menu covers are working out?
LaPlante: They’re great for us. My boss also uses them in his other property in Vermont! — White Horse Tavern of Newport, RI uses Boxerbrand’s Linen Naturals menu cover Line in its table presentation.The Reluctant Panther Restaurant in Vermont also uses Linen Naturals. Name the other restaurant and menu cover. Thank you!