The Brick Tavern Inn

By Kathryn Finegan Clark

Spring was just one day old when my husband and I stopped at The Brick Tavern Inn after spending the entire afternoon roaming the back roads of Lehigh County.

Crossing into Bucks County, both of us were hungry when we pulled into the parking lot at the intersection of Old Bethlehem Pike and Brick Tavern Road—but not for long.

The happy mix of aromas from the kitchen wrapped around us and hurried us inside, just two of the thousands of travelers who had sought food and rest within the tavern’s walls over the years. I noted the hanging sign with the 1818 date promising fine food and spirits—a promise kept.

The tavern’s glass-enclosed porch was the perfect place for two tired travelers to enjoy a relaxed and luscious Sunday evening dinner.

Greeted warmly, we sank into our seats at a corner table with windows peeking through greenery toward the intersection. I couldn’t help thinking of all those who had stopped here over the years, including escaped slaves, and wondering about their lives.

The historic tavern was built in 1818 by Henry Shelley, a descendant of one of the original Mennonite families who had settled in Milford Township a century earlier. The inn, as was often the case, actually gave its name to the tiny village, composed of a store, a mill, a schoolhouse and a handful of houses that grew up around it.

Its quiet country charm is one of its attractions today, but in the early 19th century the bustling intersection was an ideal site for a tavern. Old Bethlehem Pike was one of the main stagecoach routes between Philadelphia and Bethlehem and Allentown, constantly humming with the sounds of carriage wheels,stagecoaches and horses.

The happy mix of aromas from the kitchen wrapped around us and hurried us inside, just two of the thousands of travelers who had sought food and rest within the tavern’s walls over the years.

The porch was bathed in early evening light and baskets of fresh flowers rested on each of the wide windowsills. Hanging baskets of greenery added to the cozy atmosphere.

I selected a glass of Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon from the interesting wine list, while my husband chose his usual tonic with a slice of lemon. The tavern offers both red and white wines by either glass or bottle, with 10 or so choices for each, and a half dozen kinds of champagnes and sparkling wines including Moet Imperial.

Bernadette, our vivacious server, allowed us just the right amount of time with our drinks before bringing the starters. John selected Scallops Wrapped with Bacon with Asian slaw and horseradish cream sauce, and I, an inveterate cheese lover, couldn’t pass up the Baked Brie, lightly breaded with raspberry sauce and sliced almonds served with thin slices of crusty, warm bread.

With Bernadette’s help we settled on our entrees. Either soup or salad accompanies them. John selected a wedge of iceberg lettuce with tomatoes, smoked bacon and Danish blue cheese dressing and I had a cup of excellent mushroom bisque.

I’m a seafood fan and while the Pan-seared Duck Breast with Mandarin orange beurre blanc was tempting, I finally chose Jumbo Day Boat Scallops broiled with garlic and olive oil, just one of the many entrees that is also available in small plate size.

I rarely order from anything but the seafood menu and these succulent big scallops broiled not a minute too long were among the best I’ve ever tasted.  John reached a similar conclusion about his New York Strip Steak, 12 juicy, tender ounces of Black Angus beef topped with blue cheese.

For dessert John ordered his favorite ice cream with chocolate sauce, and Bernadette suggested I try Chocolate Lava Cake. Topped with a mountain of whipped cream and centered on a pattern of chocolate sauce drizzled on a white plate, it was perfect.

Marcia A. Short, general manager, has put together a friendly, welcoming staff that guarantees a comfortable experience whether  a diner selects one of the elegant entrées or opts for the more casual tavern fare.

Short brought her 21 years of restaurant skills from the Manor House Inn in Center Valley.  She says the tavern has a healthy roster of regulars but she also is seeing more and more new faces.

The balanced menu includes luncheon, dinner and tavern fare.  The special tortilla pizzas, hamburgers and hot and cold sandwiches are prepared to the same standards as the more expensive selections.  The menus change with the seasons and are posted on their website

Bernadette says the customers’ all-seasons favorite is onion soup, with its rich broth made with Guinness and three cheeses.  “They even order it in the summer,” she says.

Bartender Brian gave us a brief tour of the property. The sturdy building was erected with bricks crafted from local clay deposits and fired on site.  The exterior bricks have been plastered over now but some exposed ones can be seen in the main dining room.

The inn has not always served as a hostelry. Like many old buildings in Bucks, Northampton and Lehigh counties, it has had different uses. Little is recorded about the inn’s earlier years but from 1870 to 1890, the building was owned by Joseph B. Shelley, according to the Milford Township Historical Society.  Society records show the building housed a post office and general store during those years. At other times it was a shop that manufactured cultivators and harrows. It also housed a cider press and sawmill.

Now the building boasts three interior rooms for diners: the enclosed porch, which seats about 50, the dining room that seats 75, and a second dining room seating 30 to 35 used mostly for private parties. The kitchen, newly renovated, is compact as restaurant kitchens go and its stainless steel equipment is squeaky clean.

Serving the separate dining areas is the semicircular bar where Brian practices his skills. Its highly polished oak gleams in the subdued lighting. He says the customers’ favorite cocktail is a mango martini. Other interesting and popular drinks include a caramel apple martini and the new espresso martini. Cocktails vary with the seasons and there are always special drinks for holidays.

Amazingly, the tavern offers 16 varieties of beer on tap—among them Weyerbacher, an artisanal beer brewed in Easton.

The only thing that would have made our experience nicer would have been to  eat outdoors but the tavern’s handsome outdoor patio was still closed for the season when we were there in March. The patio opened Easter weekend and will remain open through summer and into fall. For those of you who like dining al fresco as we do, it’s an absolute must.

As we chatted with Bernadette and Brian after dinner, they told us about Henry, who has taken over the ghostly activities in the historic building. Remember I said the sign read fine food and spirits? Bernadette thinks the spirit is the ghost of the first owner, Henry Shelley, who roams the upstairs and occasionally turns on the gas. She swears she’s left the kitchen at night after making sure all the gas burners were turned off, only to return later to find one aflame.

“None of the girls will go upstairs.  If they need something, I have to get it for them,” Brian says. Henry must be a ladies man because he hasn’t approached Brian yet. So far, all’s been quiet–for him.

Brian also says he’s heard escaped slaves were hidden in the inn’s basement.  He says there is a tunnel down there that he’s been told allowed underground passage to a house across the street.  “It’s blocked off now, though, so you can’t really tell where it actually ends,” he says.

But that’s more than hearsay. The Brick Tavern Inn definitely was a stop on the Underground Railroad, according to historians at the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies headquartered in Montrose.  It was a station on one of three routes that took the fugitive slaves to upstate New York and Canada. From Norristown the slaves were taken to Quakertown, with its large number of abolitionist Quakers. From there, historians say, some of the fugitives went northeast to Applebachsville and others moved northwest through Milford, hiding at the Brick Tavern until they continued to Bingen, where the two groups joined and went on to Bethlehem. Moravians there provided shelter until the slaves traveled northward to freedom.

The Brick Tavern Inn is situated at 2460 Old Bethlehem Pike. Serving luncheon, dinner and tavern fare, it is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. and on Sunday from noon until 8 p.m.

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