The Perfect Small American Town and its Oldest Inn
Essex is a mint-condition one-traffic-light river town where the dignified revolutionary-era spirit still lingers—and there’s not a fast food joint in sight. The town boasts some of the nation’s best examples of early colonial sight. The town boasts some of the nation’s best examples of early colonial and federal architecture, built when the town was famous and prosperous for shipbuilding, a trade that was first established here in 1645, and flourished until the advent of the railroads in the mid-1800s. On Main Street and its narrow back roads, white picket fences frame many landmark buildings that even today remain private homes, while others have been turned into antique and specialty stores.
One of the most celebrated buildings in town is the Griswold Inn, the oldest continuously operating inn in Connecticut and one of the oldest in America. First opened in 1776 (and the first three-story building constructed in the state), the Griswold’s heart is its famous, must-visit Tap Room, originally the town’s first schoolhouse, built in 1738 and later relocated here from across town. A potbellied stove sits at its center, and its wood-paneled walls are lined with a prodigious collection of maritime memorabilia and original Currier and Ives prints, the largest such collection in private hands today. Much of the inn’s buzz (not to mention Dixieland jazz and banjo music) emanates from here, a perennial magnet for locals, riverboat folks, yachtmen from Long Island Sound, and nostalgia-seeking landlubbers alike.
Overnighters can hang their hats in any of the handsome guest rooms; many guests stay for the weekend just to be first in line for the inn’s well-known Sunday Hunt breakfast, an enormous affair said to have been initiated by the British who commandeered the inn during the War of 1812. Guests come for the table-groaning buffet (the inn’s sausages are made from a historical recipe), but also for the especially inviting camaraderie that envelopes the inn and reflects the key role the Gris has long played in Essex.