By Ariel Yong
Alexandria welcomed a new tavern last month, but from the outside, it may be hard to believe that it’s a restaurant and not a museum. John Strongbow’s Tavern is designed like a castle, complete with decor featuring the flag of Wales, the Scottish lion, paintings of Henry II and Henry V and “a reproduction of a stain-glassed piece of Richard Strongbow [John’s brother],” says Karla Booth, a restaurant representative.
The owners, a group of United States veterans, used the Strongbow name to complement the British-themed tavern. The restaurant is also a nod, says Booth, of the owners’ appreciation of history and the arts.
While a 15th century tavern serving 15th century food may seem out of the ordinary, this is not a new concept to Alexandria. A few of the owners of John Strongbow’s also owned Medieval Madness on King Street, a similarly themed establishment which closed earlier this year. However, Medieval Madness has a new home above John Strongbow’s dining area in the Great Hall. In addition to a four-course feast, the Great Hall features live entertainment, including comedy, singing and a live sword competition. Booth says some of the tavern’s owners serve as actors in the battles and use real swords and armor.
The Great Hall also hosts live bands, including local ones like Moch Pryderi. This traditional Celtic band from Fredericksburg is complete with bagpipes and a harp. Eventully, John Strongbow’s intends to bring the live music downstairs to the dining area.
The tavern’s dining area features 15th century food served by people dressed as wenches and knaves, who speak with accents of “various degrees of success,” says Heather Howard, the restaurant’s director of arts and entertainment. Howard hopes to host workshops for the staff on how to improve medieval accents in the future to keep with the tavern’s 15th century theme. “The idea is to provide a unique dining experience that blends art, history and culinary art,” Howard says. The tavern focuses on spices, such as cinnamon and nutmeg, which are “very comforting” and “speak hospitality,” says Howard. “Some people have come in and been like, ‘Oh, it smells like Christmas in here. What’s cooking?’ It’s definitely comfort food and a lot of what you see in modern day pubs is basically modern takes on what we’re [using] the original recipes for.”
Booth credits research and medieval cookbooks for the tavern’s authentic recipes. For example, the Gallentyn Pye is a medieval meat pie that includes chicken, beef, dried fruit and a sweet and savory sauce “that is reconstructed from Henry V’s coronation’s supper.” Ronald Stanfield, a former chef at Balducci’s, is the tavern’s head chef.
The tavern’s menu only features ingredients that were available during the 15th century and specifically uses them the way they were utilized back then. “Salt was used a preservative, not as a condiment back in the day so all of our dishes are low sodium,” Howard says. In addition, tomatoes are “New World food,” according to Howard, so they’re not featured heavily on the menu since “they wouldn’t have been in existence in Europe at the time.” The tavern resorts to substitutes, including a modified take on traditional barbecue sauce that uses plums instead of tomatoes as the base in order to maintain the tanginess of the classic sauce.
At lunchtime, John Strongbow’s offers a hot bar serving vegetable lasagna, chicken pot pie and the Crusader’s Sandwich, a pretzel bread sandwich stuffed with pastrami, a split-open sausage and a piece of cheese. The tavern also has a take-out menu.
The drinks are no exception to John Strongbow’s 15th century theme. “In order for us to carry a beer or wine, the recipe for the beer or the vineyard in question has to have been older than 1453” Howard says. Although Booth admits that there is a lot of academic debate surrounding the date, she says 1453 more or less marked a shift in periods from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, adding that “it was the date that the Constantinople fell and also the date that ended the 100 Years War.” In addition to carrying the entire line of Weihenstephaner beers, John Strongbow’s also offers a mead stout made of sparkling scotch mead and lemon juice that Booth described as a “very refreshing” drink that “reminds you of lemonade.”
The tavern has added a few American craft beers but still requires the brews to be made in the same tradition as the world beers. “We really try to seek out beer that tastes like beer,” Howard says. Examples include Optimal Whit, a wheat beer from Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria and General Washington’s Tavern Porter by Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia.
Howard says it’s tricky to maintain the restaurant’s unique concept and still be considered a regular, casual spot: “We’re definitely fighting against being cornered into a niche market.” / John Strongbow’s Tavern, 710 King St., Alexandria