Written and photographed by John Torsiello
Okay, let’s get this straight. George Washington, yes, that George Washington, didn’t eat at the GW Tavern or even stay there, although there are claims that our first President dined or slept at about a thousand taverns and inns during his time as leader of the American army during the Revolutionary War.
“No, George Washington didn’t eat or stay here,” said GW Tavern owner John VandenBosch, as he sat inside the cozy confines of his popular eating establishment just off Route 47 in quiet Washington Depot. “He did stay at an inn in New Preston, which is now a private residence.” Actually, there was no way the father of our nation could have stayed or ate at the GW Tavern, simply because the structure didn’t exist at the time, being built around 1850.
Anyway, let’s not let that get in the way of a good story. The GW Tavern was opened by Robert Margolis in October of 1996 and it quickly became a popular destination for local and weekender foodies alike. Why? Because of its laid back ambiance, location near the Shepaug River and almost in the middle of the Depot, and varied menu that the present owner describes as classic American comfort food. Indeed, you can get anything from a burger and a craft beer to a filet mignon and a hundred dollar bottle of wine here.
So what about the name? “Robert said the name for the tavern came to him as he was driving across (what else?) the George Washington Bridge in New York,” said VandenBosch. “The name has worked quite well and we go with the homage to Washington and have fun with it.” Indeed, patrons have donated various Americana memorabilia over the years, including a number of paintings and illustrations of Washington. There’s a large American flag circa late 1800s that hangs from the wall of one of the dining rooms that further lends a sense of patriotism to the confines.
VandenBosch began working at the GW Tavern in 2000, first in the kitchen, and then assuming the general manager’s role in 2001. When Margolis decided that he wanted to change his life’s direction five years ago, VandenBosch, who grew up in upstate New York and worked at the Mayflower Inn in Washington (where else?) prior to coming to the GW Tavern, knew it was time to, as the adage says, carpe diem.
“I did approach the purchase with some trepidation,” the present owner admits. “But the pros outweighed the cons. The Tavern was well established as was the clientele and I knew what we could become. The Tavern will be 20 years old on Oct. 6 of this year and we are very excited about that.”
Of course, owning a restaurant means long hours virtually every day of the week. But that harsh fact of life, for VandenBosch, is softened quite a bit by being able to work with his wife, Julia, who serves as chef at the GW. The couple met while both were working at the Mayflower Inn, and the professional partnership has worked well. “I defer to Julia as far as the menu goes and she defers to me on management issues. It’s difficult working so much because we have two young children. But that’s what comes with the territory.”
The kitchen staff at the GW Tavern sticks pretty much to a set menu, although new items and specials do appear on a fairly regular basis. The tavern also attempts to locally source as much of its meats and produce as it can and often designs dishes around what is seasonally available. “By locally sourcing as much as we can,” said VandenBosch, “we can keep the dishes fresh. And the food tastes better. The one thing that a restaurant has to be is consistent in its food, and that goes for the service as well. We try to take care of our staff and we value our employees. Some of them have been with us 10, 12 and 15 years. I always tell them that I have been them because I worked a variety of jobs in food service. So, I know what they are going though and what they need to make their jobs fun and rewarding.”
The GW Tavern can seat up to 100 patrons in its inside dining areas and up to 40 outside, the latter a very popular area during the late spring, summer and fall months. The restaurant also caters weddings and other private parties and events on its two acres, which are secluded and quite scenic, with the Shepaug River rolling by, not far from the restaurant.
“We do quite a few events in June and then again in the fall,” said VandenBosch. “We really strive to make our events successful and insure that everyone has a good time and enjoys the food. Probably about half of the people attending a private event have never eaten at the GW Tavern, so if they like the food and the atmosphere they will be enticed to come back and eat here.”
The price points for the GW Tavern’s dishes range anywhere from $13 for a burger to $36 for a filet mignon. The food is a rich blend of traditional and contemporary. Recent food items have included everything from a sumptuous Kobe Beef to locally raised venison, quail, and duck. As mentioned, when the weather warms and seasons change, the tavern’s menu reflects a wide range of local crops, and seafood. Tomatoes, arugula, basil, to mention a few items from Waldingfield organic farm, transform into a variety of daily specials. Shad roe and soft-shell crabs are available as well as swordfish from the Grand Banks. There are various craft beers, spirits (some from local distilleries) and wine to make for a most enjoyable repast.
Asked what the future holds for the Tavern owners, VandenBosch smiled and said, “We get a lot of people from New York City, Long Island and other places tell us that there is nothing like this where they live and they wish there was. I would love to open another or a few other GW Taverns, especially if we could solve our staffing problems (it’s difficult to find qualified wait staff these days). But I think my wife would divorce me.”
The GW Tavern, which occasionally offers live music, is open Thursday through Tuesday (closed Wednesday). Lunch is served beginning at 11:30 a.m. and dinner at 5:30 p.m., 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Visit www.GWTavern.com to check out the tavern’s menu and other information.