High-volume restaurants: Smith & McNell’s

Smith&McNellsAll things considered, the best restaurants that this country has produced probably have been unpretentious, inexpensive, high-volume eateries located close to sources of fresh food. In 19th-century New York City’s Smith & McNell’s, across from the booming Washington Market, was a leading example of the type. Its patronage came largely from dealers, farmers, and customers who worked and shopped at the market. Around 1891 the restaurant reportedly provided more meals than any eating place in the city, as many as 10,000 a day.

Service was so brisk at Smith & McNell’s that its waiters and kitchen workers were held to a high standard. Successful performance there was a job recommendation said to be equal in its own way to having worked at Delmonico’s. Fred Harvey, founder of the famed Santa Fe Railroad system of eating houses, found his first job at Smith & McNell’s shortly after immigrating from England in the early 1850s.

S&MHotel1900There are many discrepancies in accounts of this restaurant’s history but it seems most likely it was established in the late 1840s by Thomas R. McNell and Henry Smith. McNell was an Irish immigrant, born sometime between 1825 and 1830. According to one account he and Smith had been night watchmen before taking over the coffee house run by Frederick Way on Washington Street near the market. Both McNell and Smith became wealthy and McNell acquired a lordly estate in Alpine, New Jersey, as well as a California ranch. He continued working in the business until a ripe old age and died in 1917 a few years after the restaurant (and associated hotel) closed.


Smith and McNell’s, following the customs of the time, operated 24 hours a day and did a strictly cash business, clearing a daily profit which the partners split after paying the help. Since the market was busiest at night, that was probably the time when most of their clientele piled in for meals of oysters, steaks, eggs, and griddle cakes. Judging from a 1900 menu, prices did not go up much over the decades. A meal of beefsteak pie or baked ham with champagne sauce still cost 15 cents, while an order of mashed potatoes or a chocolate eclair cost 5 cents each. The restaurant, which seated 1,000 and took up the entire first floor of the 400-room hotel, made its own wine. A glass of Concord or Catawba wine sold for 10 cents, a quart for 30 cents.

When the property was sold in 1920 it comprised almost the entire block bounded by Washington, Greenwich, Vesey, and Fulton streets across from Washington Market. The market continued to operate until around 1960 when the site was cleared for the World Trade Center, the acreage of which also encompassed the block once occupied by Smith & McNell’s. It could be argued that some of the restaurants operated by catering maestro Joe Baum in the WTC, such as The Big Kitchen, carried on the tradition of the old marketmen’s eatery.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under proprietors & careers

31 responses to “High-volume restaurants: Smith & McNell’s

  1. Pingback: The History Chicks Episode 171: The Harvey Girls

  2. Joe Chowske

    I found an old bottle in Saratoga Springs, NY that was embossed with: Smith & McNell
    New York
    Brooklawn Farms
    Esopus on the Hudson
    I wonder if this bottle was associated with the restaurant in your article. The bottle supposedly contained “koumiss” which was fermented mare’s milk.
    I’d love to know more information if anyone can educate me… Thanks.

    • I don’t have any specific information about that, but I’d say it’s highly likely that the restaurant would have had its own dairy farm because that sort of arrangement was not unusual in those early days.

  3. Betty Moore

    Richard, make sure it’s a zero 5. And it .net

  4. Betty Moore

    Dan, it is not an assumption. It’s fact. You are not part of the TR McNell ancestry.

  5. Richard Smith

    HI Betty…my father signed everything as Frank D. Smith. He was born in Amityville, Long Island. My mother’s name was Martha. I have a sister Florence and a brother Arthur. My father went to Columbia university (medicine) and Springfield college. (physical ed). He later started a boy’s camp in 1914 in Maine. I believe we are remotely related and it is nice to know it. I knew very few of my relatives, I do know I had an aunt Florence.

    • Betty Moore

      Hi Richard, we definitely are related. I know about the camp. You have more than one aunt on your father’s side. I always wondered where in Maine the camp was and if the camp still exists. Please contact me at my email address and I can send you a time line and other info I have.

      Looking forward to learning more about your father!


    • Anonymous

      My name is Daniel McNell……related somehow…My grandfather was Samuel McNell….he was a twin…I believe his brother was named BOB…not sure though…I was young….I’m curious to know where the boys camp in Maine was as my dad and Uncles ran a summer camp in Maine also….it was a girls camp though…
      my email is dmcnell@comcast.net I have several pieces of mail etc from Smith & McNell’s////

      • Betty Moore


        I don’t think you are part of this ancestry. The information you have just posted, doesn’t have merit based on the McNell/Smith ancestry. Sorry!

      • Anonymous

        Betty Moore….why would you assume such a thing? I was born in manhattan and my family has been there for generations. Like it or not we are related.

  6. Anonymous

    I am a descendant of T.R. McNell. My dad was George W. McNell which was his Great Grandfather. I am also Ellen Tetrault’s sister. I would love to view pictures of my relatives and learn more about the McNell family history.


      My name is Richard Smith. My father’s name was Francis Drake Smith. He was T. R. McNell’s grandson. His mother’s name was Emma.

      • Anonymous

        Hi Richard,
        I have a little information about Francis who was actually called Frank by his family. My grandmother, Grace was Frank’s sister. I actually have a postcard from Frank sent to my grandmother. Email me at Bmdm05@yahoo.com to talk more

  7. daniel mcnell

    Daniel McNell
    Atlanta Ga

    I’m a relative too…..would love to learn more….

  8. Anonymous

    I just found an old skeleton key with a ring that says Smith and McNell’s hotel New York room 614.

  9. Betty Maczynski

    My name is Betty Moore. I too am a descendant from the McNell & Smith family. Thomas R. McNell was my Great-Great grandfather. I have a great deal of documentation. I am a direct descendant of Emma Smith (my great grandmother) and have information dating back to the late 1800’s to the day she died in 1929. I was very excited to find family members on this site.

    Here is my email- bmdm05@yahoo.com

    I would be happy to hear from any relatives!

  10. J.D. Fields

    I find it sort of strange to see so few comments on the story, but it’s nice to see the family make contact online. Are there still restaurateurs in the family?

  11. Dennis McNell

    I am somewhere down the family tree. If you would like to get in touch, my email is Dennis@McNell.org.

    Dennis McNell
    San Francisco

  12. Gerri Sullivan

    Both Smith and McNell were my Great Great Grandfathers. T.R. McNell’s daughter, Emma, married Henry Smith’s son.

    • Ellen Tetrault

      T.R. was my great grandfather also. My grandfather George was his grandson.

    • Anonymous


      Emma was my Great Grandmother. She had a daughter named Grace, who was my Grandmother. Thanks for your info above. I figured Emma had married her father’s partner’s son but always wondered what happened to him because in all the documentation I have there is no record if his existence.

      • Gerri Sullivan

        Hi Anonymous,

        My Grandmother was Martha Smith Kookogey. Henry must have died at an early age. We do have a portrait of Henry and lots of photos of Emma. Grandma Smith lived in Brooklyn and Grandpa McNell lived on 75th St in the city. McNell also had a home on the Hudson up by West Point. If you’d like to share info, my email is gbs@u.arizona.edu.


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