Opened by Felix O'Hanlon as The Railway Tavern, the pub was then bought by Michael Fanigan. Fanigan's son Patrick renamed and renovated the pub in 1885.
The Crown owes its elaborate tiling, stained glass and woodwork to the Italian craftsmen whom Fanigan persuaded to work on the pub after hours. These craftsmen were brought to Ireland to work on the many new churches being built in Belfast at the time. It was this high standard of work that gave the Crown the reputation of being one of the finest Victorian Gin Palaces of its time.
In 1978, the National Trust, following persuasion by people including Sir John Betjeman, purchased the property and three years later completed a £400,000 renovation to restore the bar to its original Victorian state. Further restoration by the National Trust was done in 2007 at a cost of £500,000. This work is the subject of a BBC Northern Ireland documentary, The Crown Jewel, screened in 2008.
A recognisable landmark of Belfast, the pub has featured as a location in numerous film and television productions, such as David Caffrey's Divorcing Jack (1998) and Carol Reed's classic 1947 film Odd Man Out.
The Crown has been given a Grade A Listed Building status by the Environment and Heritage Service.