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History in the Re-Making

by Theodora Malison

In 2007, the Continental Tavern—a historical landmark said to be one of three waystations in Yardley on the Underground Railroad during the 1800s, and a vibrant speakeasy during the Prohibition era in the 1920’s—was purchased by a confident, entrepreneurial family determined to cultivate the building’s potential.

Family members Kelly and Sean Vliet, and Frank and Patty Lyons seized the opportunity to pursue the rebirth and renovation of the Continental Tavern. Vliet, a real estate agent and former Pharma Rep, and Lyons, a retired commercial Airline Captain and partner in a small investment banking business, saw the iconic Yardley structure as not only a rare opportunity, but a responsibility to restore a distressed property to its former grandeur and thereby enhance the charm and hospitality of a town they grew to love.

“I knew that my experience in business and real estate, coupled with my father’s business acumen and knowledge of American history, was a recipe for success,” Vliet states. “My father always encouraged me to try new things while instilling a work ethic grounded in perseverance.” More importantly, Vliet claims her father led by example. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” she adds. “My father enjoyed the challenge of finding new ways to be successful.”

A challenge indeed is what the duo faced. Prior to settlement, the family presented their four-phase restoration plan to the Yardley Borough Planning Commission. The plan called for a total renovation of the three-story building, an upgrade to meet modern code standards, redesign of the entire first floor of the Tavern, and lastly, the reconstruction of a wrap-around porch to replicate the precise façade fashioned in 1877. The proposed plan sought to revive the building’s remarkable charm and revitalize the center of Yardley.

“In 1876, a fire destroyed the twostory structure and it was rebuilt in 1877 on the same foundation in its current three-story configuration,” Frank says. “During our renovations, which began in late 2007, an inaccessible chamber was discovered under the kitchen…in the corner of the chamber was a stone tunnel, which ran deep into the ground. We began an archeological dig looking for evidence of the Underground Railroad. What we found so far is over 10,000 empty whiskey bottles from the Prohibition Era, as well as a number of artifacts from Yardley’s past.” Many of those bottles and artifacts are on display around the building.

Frank notes at the time of purchase, the Tavern’s first floor was a 116 seat bar and restaurant. On the second and third floors, however, were 18 small hotel rooms which had gone unused since the 1950’s. In April of 2008, Vliet and the Lyons’ reopened the Tavern with 110 seats in the first floor bar and restaurant. In 2011 the second floor reopened to feature a 60-seat special purpose room designed for catered events and overflow dining, in addition to a small meeting room and office. A new efficient kitchen “line” was designed by Ken Fuller—one of Eastern Pennsylvania’s most prominent kitchen engineers — to offer modern equipment, and productive work areas. The last of the renovations were completed in the spring of 2012 with the reconstruction of the exterior wrap-around porch containing 22 seats for outdoor dining. Today, the Continental Tavern remains a successful and vibrant local dining destination.

“In a soundbite, the Tavern serves ‘old fashioned American tavern fare with a curiously modern accent,’” Frank says. “We have a robust selection of standard tavern comfort foods, such as ribs, burgers, steaks and pot pies, which are prepared in our kitchen with the finest ingredients. Each week however, our chefs plan unique specials which rival the best fine dining establishments in the county. There’s something for everyone.”

“The food and dining atmosphere offers a flare of the city while located in a small town,” Kelly adds. “It’s a destination for date night, ladies night, guys getting together to watch sporting events, or for a night out with the entire family.” Kelly recalls growing up in Yardley. There were no local spots to meet up with old friends when they arrived home for the holidays. She is now proud to say that the Continental Tavern has taken the role of that place. “It’s a place where everybody knows your name, and more so, everyone is always glad you came.”

The Tavern boasts 30,000 burgers sold per year. This number comes as no surprise, as each burger is a signature blend of tender sirloin, beef brisket and short rib—and a new addition to the menu, the “Lamb Burger”—is bound to be just as popular. However, the burger is just the beginning. Tavern Executive Chef Matthew Sindoni, the mastermind behind each unique entrée, mentions his excitement about the introduction of the new spring menu and his passion for cooking since a young age.

“Growing up in an Italian family, I was exposed to foods that not all 12 year olds are exposed to,” Sindoni says. “Using nothing but fresh ingredients stuck with me throughout my entire life. Now we have the new spring menu I just released, and the menu is really where tavern fare meets modern American cuisine. From a huge BLT topped with a fried egg, to truffle grilled cheese on homemade Salt Loaf bread, even to my personal favorite, the Pasta Aribiatta with sweet Italian sausage, peppers and onions in a spicy marinara sauce, there is something for everyone on this menu. And you are sure to leave with a full stomach.”

To accompany the great menu the Tavern also offers a robust assortment of hand-selected craft beers and satisfying, food-friendly wines. General Manager, Ross Adrian carefully selects the feature beers and wines weekly and meticulously pairs them with the chef’s specials.

The Tavern is known as a place where a stranger can join in some great bar conversation. As a matter of fact, the Tavern has taken the bar conversation to a new level with a monthly radio talk show called the Yardley Philosophical and Lager Appreciation Society. Based on a tavern club founded by Benjamin Franklin, the radio show is called “the best bar argument in the commonwealth.”

The Tavern’s front porch is the town’s premier spot for viewing the two “Olde Fashioned” parades which march down Main Street each year. The Tavern hosts one of the best St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the county, featuring live Irish music, Irish step dancing, corn beef and cabbage specials and lastly, Sharon Sweeny peddling fine Irish wares along the front porch.

“The Continental Tavern also doesn’t miss an opportunity to give back to the community,” Kelly adds. “We participate in and sponsor many local events and causes, such as Restaurant Week, Carry the Load, Visit Bucks County, and others. The Tavern is also a proud sponsor of the events at Washington Crossing Historic Park, just three miles up the road.”

And just when you think the Tavern couldn’t possibly get any more interesting and exciting, Frank says that it is one of the most haunted buildings in Bucks County. Numerous paranormal groups have studied the Tavern and, as one investigator put it, “There are a lot of people here, who, over the last two centuries, checked in, but never checked out.” Frank conducts regular presentations on the history of the property, including the Underground Railroad, the Speakeasy, and the “special guests” who still roam the halls of this fascinating and unique piece of American history.

If one were to ask Vliet and Lyons if they ever envisioned owning and operating a successful and prosperous restaurant, Kelly Vliet says, “we would’ve thought the question alone was insane.” But reflecting back on their journey, the three partners couldn’t be happier about where they and the Continental Tavern have come.

THE CONTINENTAL TAVERN
2 North Main Street | Yardley
(215) 493-9191
ConTav.com

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, May, 2017.
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