What Is the Difference Between Inns and Taverns?


Inns and taverns hark back to the era of horse-drawn travel, pewter tankards and rudimentary dining, but a subtle distinction separates the two. Inns traditionally provided accommodation and stables whereas taverns were straightforward, if boisterous, watering holes. Today, few inns offer rooms for the night, but historic drinking houses are scattered across towns and cities from the colonial era.

Overnight Inns

  • Inns have their historic roots in 12th-century England, with the word meaning “house” in Old English. Travelers riding between towns required overnight accommodation, food and somewhere to rest their horses. Most inns today only function as bars and restaurants. The oldest inn in England, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, dates from 1189, while the Old Yarmouth Inn in Cape Cod is America’s oldest, dating from 1696. Since the notion of chef-run restaurants did not gather steam until the early 1800s, food in early taverns tended to be sourced from the patron’s family table with no menu in sight.

Social Taverns

  • Taverns were straightforward drinking houses where guests gathered from the Middle Ages onward to enjoy the emerging availability of real ale. A derivative of the Latin word for “shop,” the humble tavern typically brewed its own ale and had its own wine cellars, indicated by branches and leaves hung over the entrance. Taverns have been a cornerstone of English culture for centuries, most notably as the starting point for "The Canterbury Tales." America’s oldest surviving tavern, The Bell in Hand Tavern in Boston, dates from 1795 and counted Paul Revere among its patrons.

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