This chef's meals will go down in history

Chef Walter Staib published six cookbooks, but also loves history books.
Chef Walter Staib published six cookbooks, but also loves history books.
Posted: August 19, 2014

NEVER TRUST a skinny chef. Nor one with a spotless apron.

I trust Walter Staib, built like a Black Forest barrel with a winter-frost Vandyke. In a world crawling with skinny chefs, Iron Chefs and nuisance chefs, give me Walter.

"I don't have tattoos, I haven't been in jail, I'm an ordinary guy," he says.

This ordinary guy has published six cookbooks, his PBS "A Taste of History" series snagged four Emmys in five seasons, he's a mega-consultant who has launched 650 restaurants around the globe. Right now he is celebrating his 20th year as proprietor of the "historic" City Tavern restaurant at 2nd and Walnut streets. I use quote marks around "historic" because the building isn't as old as the 68-year-old chef.

The current building dates to the 1976 Bicentennial, but is a faithful replica of what John Adams called "the most genteel tavern in America."

This is where George Washington and the other Founding Fathers took their meals. You sit on the same style wooden chairs they sat on, under candles on the chandeliers (even if they are electric). The wait staff wears frilly white shirts, vests and leggings, the women in billowing dresses and corsets. It is something special because no restaurant can match this ambience, this sense of place.

Sense of palate, too. With few exceptions, the menu is based on 18th century recipes and food. I love the lobster pie, and Walter tells me there were lobster in the Delaware back then. Less rich are delights such as the medallions of venison and chicken breast Madeira. Walter's been doing this a long time, his kitchen staff has been with him a long time. There are no clunkers on the menu.

Although Walter owns the restaurant, he does not own the building.

You own that, through the Department of Interior, because the three-story brick building is part of Independence National Historical Park.

Walter and I are sitting in the main-level "subscription room" overlooking 2nd Street, one of 10 dining rooms, talking about two decades of running the most unusual restaurant in Philadelphia, one that serves history along with the authentic victuals.

He caters to an older crowd. "We don't have a martini bar," he shrugs, adding, "History doesn't catch a lot of people," not the way it caught him.

"I had no interest in history, America," he confesses. "I came here to work for a year" in 1979 and then return home. But he met and married Gloria, a native of Nicaragua, who had zero interest in living in Europe.

So Walter, who naturalized from Germany in 1974, settled in Philadelphia in 1979.

He fell into City Tavern by accident. He was looking for a restaurant space, this was available and "then I started reading history books." He was hooked.

I knew that, but was surprised to hear that he doesn't get much money out of City Tavern. He pays $70,000 a year to the government for the privilege of running it.

You make your money from the TV shows? I ask.

"PBS?" he laughs. He makes more from his cookbooks, although the TV series pushes business to the restaurant. It's kind of symbiotic: The restaurant sparked his interest in history, and that led to the TV series.

As has been true for many years, his serious money comes from his consulting business.

City Tavern is almost like a costly hobby, but one that he loves. "Every night it's Colonial history in here," he says. "It's a beautiful thing, to preserve history."


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