During the American Revolution and the subsequent period when New York City was the capital of the U.S., Fraunces Tavern was the place for pols to be seen, much as D.C.’s Zeibert’s is today. The colonials weren’t even put off their food when George Washington’s peas were found to be poisoned. The assassination attempt by Thomas Hickey, a Tory spy, was discovered by the original innkeeper’s daughter, Phoebe Fraunces. She exposed Hickey, who was her lover, thereby sentencing him to the gallows. Fraunces Tavern—America’s oldest and most historic restaurant—still flourishes amid the bustle of Manhattan’s financial district.
Started by Phoebe’s father, Samuel, in 1762, the tavern was acquired by aeronautical engineer Robert Norden in 1937. Appropriately enough, Norden, a native of Austria, was born on Washington’s birthday, migrated to the U.S. aboard the S.S. Washington and eventually settled on Washington Avenue in New York City. His son, Robert Jr., was 20 and a junior at Columbia University when Norden died in 1960 and left him to take over the business—”temporarily, I thought,” Robert Jr. notes wryly.
Since then he has played host to three of Washington’s successors: John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Most of his clientele, however, are Wall Streeters. Over specialties such as carpetbagger steaks, stuffed with fresh oysters, and baked chicken à la Washington, the honchos of high finance carve up the economy.
The tavern almost came to a tragic end five years ago when a bomb set off by Puerto Rican terrorists killed four patrons and injured another 53. As a watering hole for prominent U.S. capitalists, the restaurant seemed like a dramatic target. Norden was personally unharmed but Fraunces suffered more than $250,000 in damages and a drastic dropoff in business. “One man,” recalls Norden’s wife of 17 years, Jacque (pronounced Jackie), “sent us a check because in the confusion he had forgotten to pay his bill.” Most people forgot about the establishment. “We had to start all over again,” says Norden.
He routinely rises at 6:30 a.m. and breakfasts on a slice of apple pie. Wearing a $500 custom suit and fisherman’s rubber boots, he climbs into his red 1977 Mercedes and heads from his Forest Hills home for Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market. While he trawls for lobsters and fresh trout, Jacque, 39, stays in the car, working on the restaurant’s books. “Two years ago,” Norden recounts, “an IRS auditor would not believe that I used the Mercedes to haul fish. I took him to my car and opened my trunk. One whiff and he was convinced.”
Jacque heads home around 2:30 p.m. to be with their daughter, Jacqueline, 12 (son Robert, 15, is away at Choate), but Norden remains at his post. “I get home in time for the 11 o’clock news,” he says. Weekends, though, the restaurant is closed, and the Nordens escape to a home in north Jersey.
Not long ago Norden thought about offering an entire menu of authentic dishes from the colonial period. “But when we got the recipes together,” he shrugs, “we realized that what George Washington ate nobody would touch today. Do you know anybody who hankers for a good squirrel stew?”