What does Sean Brock have in mind for McCrady's Tavern?

Exterior of McCrady's Restaurant. Photo taken February 5, 2008. (Melissa Haneline/staff)

It wouldn't be accurate to say Sean Brock's excitement about the forthcoming McCrady's Tavern, scheduled to debut on Aug. 11, is matched only by people's confusion about the concept. Brock is excited in part because nobody knows what to expect.

Owner Neighborhood Dining Group has been mostly mum about the project, describing the restaurant as a “lively, everyday gathering place,” and alluding to the Unity Alley building's “original purpose.” In a recent phone conversation, Brock revealed that he's been thinking about the meaning of taverns – and that's where the hints stopped. “I like surprises,” he said.

Plenty of area restaurateurs have lately been drawn to the “tavern” concept: In the last two years, Tavern & Table, Barony Tavern and Little Jack's Tavern joined the ranks of Moe's Crosstown Tavern and Poe's Tavern. But in nearly all of those instances, tavern is just shorthand for burgers and beer. Brock clearly has something more elaborate in mind.

According to Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, it's nearly impossible to overstate the significance of taverns in the nation's history. As Sismondo points out, taverns have served as the backdrop to Sons of Liberty meetings; Lincoln assassination scheming; feminist sit-ins; labor movement strategizing and events leading up to the Stonewall riots.

"Since its early beginnings, the (tavern) served as an extension of the town hall,” Sismondo writes. “At times, it was the town hall."

As Captain Thomas Walduck noted in a 1708 letter, when colonizing Spaniards claimed territory, they first built a church. The Dutch built a fort. And English settlers started with a tavern.

“Taverns were absolute critical,” Sismondo writes, referring to their role as de facto courthouses; transportation hubs and post offices; on occasion, they also doubled as churches. In seventeenth-century Massachusetts, cities faced legal repercussions if they failed to provide a tavern, or ordinary; Newbury was fined twice before Hugh March finally opened a pub.

States also enacted laws intended to enhance the quality of tavern lodging: Travelers often complained of being made to sleep on bug-ridden floorboards, so Maryland decreed that its tavern keepers stock at least four feather beds.

Although Brock is a student of history, it's unlikely he envisions guests praying, sleeping and settling lawsuits at his new restaurant. Here, a glance at a few famous taverns that have emerged over the past 250 years or so: Perhaps one or two of them helped inspire Brock's take on the genre.

Location: New York, N.Y.

Opening date: 1762

Best known for: A Dec. 4, 1783 turtle feast: George Washington chose the occasion to bid farewell to his officers.

Contribution to tavern culture: Political energy

Location: New York, N.Y.

Opening date: 1880

Best known for: Serving as a literary clubhouse for postwar writers such as Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac.

Contribution to tavern culture: Artistic sensibility

Location: Chicago, Ill.

Opening date: 1934

Best known for: The Greek-owned tavern was immortalized in Saturday Night Live's “cheezborger cheezborger” sketch.

Contribution to tavern culture: Populist leanings

Location: New York, N.Y.

Opening date: 1937 (reopened 2009)

Best known for: Its transformation at the hands of Keith McNally from 1930s Village hangout to one of Manhattan's top steakhouses.

Contribution to tavern culture: Good food