Since foodies are anxious to check out the latest trend, I often wonder how longstanding restaurants survive: "This is our best year ever."
Every so often, the Inquirer will have an article about new restaurant openings in the Philadelphia area. The last one a few weeks ago had blurbs about more than two dozen new restaurants. The one before that, about three months ago, reported on more than three dozen new restaurants.
Since lots of foodies are anxious to check out the latest trend and the newest kid on the block, I often wonder how the longstanding restaurants with gray hair and shaky knees can compete against the energetic toddlers, and survive. After all, there are only so many customers to go around. People can only eat out so often.
How, then, does a 304-year-old restaurant compete against all the new upstarts? Karleigh Burns is used to answering that question. Burns is the fourth generation of her family, over the last 75 years, to own and operate Spring House Tavern, 1032 N. Bethlehem Pike in Spring House.
According to Bean’s History of Montgomery County, Spring House Tavern first opened in 1719, mostly to accommodate stagecoach travelers from Philadelphia to Bethlehem and back. It is still operating as a restaurant after more than three centuries (but no longer as a hotel). A fire destroyed the building in 1888, but it was quickly rebuilt on its original foundation.
In 1948, Charles Burns and his son, George, bought and began operating the Spring House Tavern, and in 1987 the business was passed along to James Burns, a third-generation owner who expanded it, with renovations in 2007 that included a substantial outdoor terrace.
James passed away in January 2015, after which his daughters, Karleigh and Marissa, ran the business until Marissa recently left to go back to school.
Unlike many of the trendy restaurants that fall out of favor when fashions change, Spring House Tavern - and many of the Colonial-era restaurants that remain - change incrementally, if not glacially, because that’s the way their long-time customers want it.
“We are fortunate,” Karleigh said last week, “because many people have been coming for decades, parents, children and grandchildren. They are part of a family tradition. My parents and grandparents knew them and passed them on to us. We have made purposeful small changes, like a private room under construction, but our customers like things the way they are. Fifty percent of our customers are long-time regulars.”
They share that tradition with local establishments such as General Warren Inn in Malvern, William Penn Inn in Gwynedd, Black Powder Tavern in Wayne and Joseph Ambler Inn in North Wales.
During the pandemic, Spring House Tavern was closed for several months. Live music on the patio on Fridays and Saturdays was discontinued, but Karleigh is now giving live music a trial run again. As with so many other restaurants, Spring House Tavern pivoted to takeout during the pandemic. “That was not typical for us,” Karleigh said, “but our regulars were amazing in the way they supported us. Some people would order takeout several times a week, so we revamped our model. We are back to normal now. In fact, this is our best year ever.”
Spring House Tavern brought in a new executive chef one year ago. Robert Foga, who formerly ran the kitchens at the Black Horse Tavern in Newtown and Craft Ale House in King of Prussia, has been earning lots of praise on social media. In a typical five-star Yelp review, Sarah C., of Ambler, recently wrote: “This has always been one of my favorite spots! The 1791 drink is our favorite. The crab cake is all fresh crab, and it is one of their specialties. My husband loves the French dip. The wait staff is excellent. We are having our son's rehearsal dinner here soon, and we are so excited.”
My wife and I have eaten at Spring House Tavern several times over the years. We recently went with four friends, and everything was excellent, especially the crab dishes. Our server, Maryann, was so charming and delightful everyone wanted to take her home. (But she said she already has a home.)
For more information, call 215-646-1788 or visit springhousetavern.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com.