They’ve arrived on foot, astride horses, in Conestoga wagons, on motorcycles, in taxis, Ubers and all manner of other vehicles. No matter the mode of transportation over the past 275 years, one thing has been a constant at Malvern’s General Warren: hospitality. “When I train new employees, the first thing I do is introduce them to the front door,” says proprietor Patrick Byrne. “I explain how that door has swung for 275 years and all the people who’ve come through it. That’s a big deal.”
Byrne has spent 33 years on site. For many businesses, that would be a significant chunk—if not all—of their history. But when something spans four different centuries and is more than three decades older than the United States, that’s just one chapter of a vivid history. Byrne understands his humble status on the Warren’s continuum, but he’s also cognizant of his responsibility for its growth.
There are activities planned to celebrate the anniversary, along with food-and-drink features throughout the year. It’s fun to think of the British and American soldiers spending time at the General Warren, or its status as a “temperance” inn run by someone so against tippling that he cut down the apple trees to prevent the production of cider. It’s a little more difficult to imagine it as a 1960s biker bar.
But one doesn’t need to be too creative to understand that if Byrne, his partners and his staff don’t continue to make the General Warren a viable, breathing concern in a changing marketplace, it will no longer matter if Gen. Cornwallis, George Washington or the Hell’s Angels all supped and quaffed there. “One key word we use is consistency,” Byrne says. “We retain the same staff, so customers will be recognized. We have a consistent menu and a consistent mood. But we’re still evolving.”
To that end, Byrne and his associates understand the need for a nimble approach. That means greater use of the bucolic terrace in the back of the property, with a relaxed dress code and an expanded menu that includes more casual items. But there’s no threat of the General Warren morphing into an unrecognizable version of its colonial self—that would amount to commercial malpractice. “No matter who has crossed the threshold, be it people on horseback and in wagons or soldiers on foot, they’ve received hospitality, sustenance and warmth,” Byrne says. “Now, they come in Teslas and Priuses, but we provide the same thing.”
Like all buildings in the mid-18th century, the General Warren was positioned facing south to take full advantage of the sun. It was initially named for Adm. Edward “Old Grog” Vernon, a British naval hero, then re-named a year later for Sir Peter Warren, who led the Siege of Louisbourg on the then-French (now Canadian) island of Cape Breton in an attempt to rid it of privateers.
In the early 19th century, the idea of an American institution of any kind commemorating a Brit was unpalatable, so the owners searched for a new name and were fortunate to learn of Dr. Joseph Warren, who was the first American general killed in the Revolution—at Bunker Hill, in 1775. It was a double victory. The inn was now under the name of an American hero, and it was the same as its original appellation.
Over the ensuing years, the Warren experienced its share of booms and busts. It actually closed at one point, thanks to a decline in traffic and the disastrous decision to remove spirits from the bill of fare. The automobile signaled a temporary resurgence, but by the 1920s, the Warren was operating as the Point Comfort Rest Home.
Reopening in the 1950s, the restaurant survived its stretch as a biker bar and had recommitted itself to fine dining by the mid-1980s. A Unionville native and chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Byrne joined the staff in ’86 and helped preside over the transition from a French-inspired menu to more American-style cuisine. “When I got here, we were relying on the three-martini lunch and had patrons who were smoking,” recalls Byrne. “It was something of a men’s club at lunch.”
Over the ensuing three-plus decades, the Warren has witnessed the midday crowd shift to a more female demographic, with both genders filling out the evenings. “We see more spontaneous customers as our future,” says partner Timothy Gemmell, the Warren’s restaurant manager. “People aren’t making reservations two weeks in advance. One Saturday, I left when we had 112 reservations, and we ended up with 200 here for the evening. We have to accommodate the people who want to drop everything and go to the Warren.”
The Warren still does weddings, rehearsal dinners and special events. Byrne calls its terrace “our future.” It offers a distinctive setting for meals or drinks. The eight-room inn provides unique lodging options for travelers or those looking for a quick getaway.
The early-days charm is still very much evident at the General Warren, but today’s customers want more than just a step back in time. “We’ve lightened up the fare some—we have to match people’s go-go-go lifestyles,” says partner and executive chef Joshua Smith, who’s quick to add that it’s still quite possible to get a good steak at the Warren. “In the past, people allocated more time for dinner. We want people to know they can still come and grab a bite to eat.”
And continue to revel in the same hospitality that has prevailed for almost three centuries. The door still swings open to welcome patrons, just as it did in 1745.