In the mid-19th century there was only one American restaurant with a worldwide reputation, Delmonico’s in New York City. A Tribune reporter wrote in the 1840s that Delmonico’s represented the sole example of an “expensive and aristocratic” restaurant which was “equal in every respect, in its appointments and attendance as well as the quality and execution of its dishes, to any similar establishment in Paris itself.”
Consequently the name Delmonico was worth gold. In the middle of the century it began to crop up everywhere.
The best known of the “other Delmonicos” was one in San Francisco. It came by its name honestly since it was established by Cyrus Delmonico, an Italian-Swiss relative of the New York Delmonicos. He opened his restaurant in 1850, selling it two years later to Giocondo Giannini (who, it must be noted, did not change the name to Giannini’s).
In 1850 Delmonico’s in San Francisco occupied the second floor of a frame house whose lower floor held a market selling beef, Sandwich Islands squashes, and $2 cabbages. The narrow room whose walls and ceiling were covered in white muslin held two rows of tables. Even though modest in appearance it was considered one of the best and most expensive eating places in a town where provisions were scarce and miners carried gold in their pockets. Breaded veal cutlets went for $1 and lobster salad was $2. With wine, a full meal could easily cost the princely sum of $5.
There continued to be a Delmonico’s in San Francisco into the 20th century though how much continuity it had with the 1850s establishment I don’t know. After the turn of the century it was classed with other eating places designated as “French restaurants” (meaningfully enclosed in quotation marks) or “so-called French restaurants,” which everyone knew meant that upstairs rooms were available for sexual liaisons. Delmonico’s, along with Marchand’s, the Poodle Dog, the Pup, and Tortoni’s, were the object of a shakedown by public officials who held up liquor licenses until protection money was paid.
What is interesting about most of the Delmonico restaurants that populated the West and other parts is that a proprietor could be of any nationality as could the fare. Many had cuisine that might be described as ethnically indeterminate, as is illustrated by a menu from San Diego’s turn-of-the-century Delmonico which features roast beef, roast pork, or roast mutton served with fried potatoes, bread & butter, and coffee, supplemented by baked beans, omelets, ham & eggs, oysters, and pie. Some of the other Delmonicos served French food and at least one furnished Chinese cuisine but probably most were Italian or gastronomically nondescript.
From the 1870s up to the 1930s, but not so much after that (except for New Orleans?), I’ve found Delmonicos in Los Angeles, Denver, Colorado Springs, Tombstone, Phoenix, Helena, Portland OR, El Paso, Dallas, Walla Walla, Mobile, Memphis, Winona MN, Leavenworth KS, Detroit, Key West (1931 ad pictured), Pittsburgh, Buffalo – and more. Proprietors names ranged from Gutekunst to Garibotti to McDougal.
© Jan Whitaker, 2009