In 1642, the English Civil War erupted between Charles I, the King of England, and the British Parliament. Charles was a firm believer in what was known as the Divine Right of Kings or the idea that a Monarch’s authority is derived from God, not the people. Unfortunately for Charles, God failed to imprint an ounce of pragmatism on him as he dissolved parliament three times during his reign, only to come crawling back each time for money, something which the members of that chamber had in abundance, and which he severely lacked. This led to war with Parliament where Charles I’s chief opponent was the staunch Puritan; Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was about the biggest square on the planet — during his reign as Lord Protectorate from 1653-1658 he outlawed pubs, music, theatre, and, wait for it, Christmas — but he did do one thing right and that was cut off the head of that fucking tyrant King Charles I. When revolution came to America, the town of Essex — part of Saybrook at the time — was tasked with building Connecticut’s first warship. A group of men led by Uriah Hayden built that vessel, while sleeping, eating, and drinking at what is now known as the Griswold Inn. The name of the ship they produced— an appropriate one for a revolution against a king— the Oliver Cromwell.
Step into The Gris and its difficult not to be charmed. Everybody knows that its the longest continuously operating Inn in America, but its remarkable how much of that historical mystique its retained. The walls are plastered with seafaring images that can’t be described as anything but patrician and noble. Captains, corvettes, and renowned ocean-liners adorn the walls and wherever those images are absent, volumes of musty books take their place. Walking through the Gris is halfway between checking out a museum and an antique shop, except, of course, they serve booze.
The heart of the establishment is the taproom itself. Its a small space — there’s only room for about four four-tops and two two-top tables total, but on crowded nights its not uncommon for the perimeter of the entire space to be filled. No matter what season, there stands a five foot tall Christmas tree in the center of the room. Its kitschy as hell, but endearing. The focal point of the room though is the piano in the back and the ceaseless energy it emits. Every single night of the year the Gris provides music and people — whether they are locals or simply staying at the Inn itself that night — who consistently show up. Now the average person showing up might be paying for dinner with their Social Security checks (yikes), but that doesn’t make the atmosphere any less cheerful. And young people drink to get their fill at the Gris too. The Sea Chantey’s on Monday night are fire — or as fire as anything can be in rural Connecticut on a Monday night. In a venue with legitimate historical ties to privateers, its pretty damn cool to sing some olde songs from the sea. And like the interactive sets that The Jovial Crew performs on Monday, so does John Banker and Friends on Saturday night too. Their rendition of Piano Man is epic, performed right at 9pm, with a group of regulars quite literally shuffling in on cue. Their music, like almost all music at the Gris, is playful and begs to be sung-along.
The Gris also brew their own beer — the Revolutionary Ale — an old school malty pale ale, which is a more than solid rendition of the style and apropos to the surroundings. They rotate their seven or eight taps regularly and mix in a few local craft brews. Just the other day I had the zesty Totes Blond from 30 Mile Brewing Co that was delicious and fresh. The food is, well, meh. The Tap Room fare is fine, certainly edible, but nothing special — it does the trick if you are building a base for drinking heavily for a sing-along. The main dining room menu is more exquisite than the Tap Room’s, but I wouldn’t say its anything overly creative — really a dinosaur menu that is a bit overpriced. That said, the food itself is executed well and if you are looking for familiar dishes, than the Gris is not a bad option.* Either way, the service is tremendous and the hallowed rooms you’re dining in often make-up for the shortcomings of the menu.
In the wrong state of mind, the Griswold Tap Room can disappoint. Its not first date territory, nor is it really a place to meet anybody new. Yet if you come to this venerated spot in good spirit with good friends, like every single American generation before you, you’ll realize its hard not to have a blast. The place is alive. You’ll get it. Order a pint, open up your vocal chords, and embrace tradition. You’ll see.
*Note this NOT a review of the Griswold Inn Wine Bar. That will be done at a later date!
Strengths: History / Ambience / Live Music / Decor / Gemütlichkeit / Sing-Alongs
Weaknesses: Older Crowds / Limited Seating Options / Unremarkable Food
Tips: If you want seating for the awesome music on Friday & Saturday nights, post-up in the Tap Room early. Music kicks off at 8:30. Get there by 7-7:30 to grab dinner and secure a table. Also, go to Sea Chantey for goodness sake.
FEAST: Potato Cakes / Jumbo Shrimp / Grilled Angus Burger
FROTH: The Revolutionary Ale and lots of it
FEAST: 5/10 – FROTH: 7/10 – BAR: 10/10