One of the few surviving colonial-era taverns in the United States, Hanover Tavern has played host to George Washington, Lord Cornwallis and the Marquis de Lafayette. It's also served as the home to the Barksdale Theatre since the 1950s, and is owned by the Hanover Tavern Foundation, which is committed to restoring the tavern and promoting its historic significance. Not many restaurants in the area can claim such longevity. But on two recent visits, it appears to suffer from the age-old historical problem of truth diverging from the written text — in this case, the menu.
My wife and I drive up scenic Route 301 on a cool summer night to Hanover Courthouse. At the tavern, we're seated by a disinterested hostess in the cool and atmospheric basement next to the pub, in a room that drips with history. Our server is apologetic but it does little to salvage the mood while we wait 45 minutes for our appetizers. The meal begins auspiciously with fried green tomatoes ($6) that wear a heavy fried crust and come with a side of pimento cheese. I'm excited to try the three cheese spoon bread ($7), served with lavender honey. I grew up eating spoon bread, mostly from the recipe of my grandmother's friend, Mrs. Mercer, in Staunton. At its best it's a Southern soufflAc, a bit like Yorkshire pudding. This version is more akin to runny grits or cornmeal queso. To make matters worse, the aromatic lavender honey clashes with the coarseness and flavor of the cornmeal and cheese. Our long wait is for naught.
A roasted red and golden beet salad ($8) strays from its menu description. Missing are the golden beets, and we must search to find a few morsels of red beets at the bottom of a pile of greens that conspicuously lacks the promised arugula. The dressing bears no resemblance to tarragon-orange vinaigrette.
Entrees don't improve our evening. Shrimp and grits ($17) are uninspired. While the local grits from Ashland's Byrd Mill have a nice flavor, they're cold and congealed. The bevy of small shrimp on top tastes fishy and remains for the most part uneaten, and the sparse sprinkling of Cajun sausage lacks spiciness and does nothing for the dish. The best thing on the plate is a side of fried Brussels sprouts. Susannah's gnocchi ($16) lean toward the heavy side, and we search for the sautAced seasonal vegetables that the menu describes, finding only asparagus and grape tomatoes swimming in a heavy red tomato sauce.
Of the three choices on the dessert menu ($6), we go with cheesecake and crA"me brA¯lAce. The cheesecake is dense and sweet but lacks a distinct vanilla flavor. Beneath a crunchy facade the crA"me brA¯lAce is tired and dry, again missing the promised vanilla.
On a return visit for lunch, we sit in a very different space. The veranda room is upstairs on the enclosed back porch. I sit and watch clouds flit by against a brilliant blue sky. And we wait again, for almost 30 minutes, for our order to be taken. She-crab soup ($4) and a Caesar salad ($6) are average, and the salad's missing the advertised Parmesan crisps. The Reuben sandwich ($8), however, is outstanding, with tender and juicy house-made corned beef, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. The club sandwich ($7) suffers from its small size, and the garlic aioli and sourdough bread are missing. Potato salad is dressed up with blue cheese and bacon but the unfortunate crunch comes from undercooked potatoes.
History is made up of a series of small events and details that are recorded and remembered. And this is precisely where the Hanover Tavern missteps. From absent ingredients and substitutions to long waits and indifferent service, this tavern must attend to details to sustain success and carry on its centuries-old tradition of hospitality.
Hanover Tavern & Pub ($-$$)
13181 Hanover Courthouse Road
Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Lunch or pub menu available between lunch and dinner service