A famous fake

. . . but not quite famous enough because many people still mistake the image shown here, dubbed “America’s first restaurant,” as a reproduction of a genuine Delmonico’s menu from 1834.

It makes me realize how little sense of restaurant history most people have because this “menu” (probably not a menu at all but a newspaper advertisement or handbill) is definitely not from the genuine Delmonico’s, one of the country’s most elegant establishments. In 1831 Delmonico’s expanded from its original status as a confectioner’s shop into a Parisian-styled “Restaurant Francais.” In stark contrast, the “menu” shown above (this particular example was used to promote a modern-day restaurant) originates with one of the lowliest dives in New York City. Plus it’s nearly 50 years later than alleged.

The prices shown are a fraction of what a Delmonico’s meal would have cost. The dishes shown are scarcely French fare. “Hamburger steak” was unknown by that name in the 1830s, first appearing in the 1880s. Although, like all fine restaurants, Delmonico’s could provide a guest with just about anything on demand, items like Pie, Crullers, Mutton Stew, and Pork and Beans would most certainly not have appeared in print. But then restaurants did not used printed menus in 1834.

The true status of the advertisement above was unraveled by Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost in an article called “A Menu and a Mystery” appearing in the Spring 2008 issue of Gastronomica. Recently, after consulting a book in which the fictitiously identified facsimile is treated as a valid Delmonico’s menu, I was inspired to dig up a few additional details.

After exhaustive research, Steinberg and Prost discovered that the likely origin of this advertisement was an establishment at 494 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan run by “R. Barnabo.” His was a place where the poor and down-and-out found cheap offerings, possibly acquired by the proprietor as leftovers from other restaurants and hotels.

The duo also discovered that the typeface on this document was not in use until the 1880s. They determined that this image made its modern debut as a facsimile of a genuine Delmonico’s menu in the 1930s, and was used in advertising campaigns for restaurants in the 1940s. Distributed by wire services, stories about the “legendary” low prices found on “America’s first menu” have cropped up as filler items in countless newspapers from the 1930s until the present. Syndicated columnist Hal Boyle made use of it repeatedly.

And yet nobody, nobody!, ever asked, “Can it be true that America’s finest restaurant served cheap doughnuts and whopping great halves of pies?” And hamburger, a despised food for the poor until mid-20th century? Pigs’ heads?

Here is what I can add to the story of R. Barnabo’s eating place known, perhaps humorously, as “Small Delmonico’s”: First, his name was actually Francisco Bernabo, born in Italy and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1882. He operated an eating place at 46 Franklin until 1879 when the property was sold and the restaurant was taken over by William S. Pontin. He then moved to 494 Pearl Street where he stayed until 1887 at which time he took a three-year lease at 6 Chatham-Square. He is listed at that address in 1888 but after that I cannot find a trace of him.

Strangely enough, the prices shown on this 1880s “menu” are actually lower than would have been found in a cheap restaurant of the 1830s. They are typical of the “5-cent restaurants” of New York City in the 1880s which were located in Chatham Square where Bernabo moved in 1887. He may have bought food secondhand, but it’s also noteworthy that in the 1880s the bottom ranks of butchers were selling the cheapest cuts of Chicago beef to lowly restaurants for 1 and 2 cents per pound. According to MeasuringWorth.com a 10-cent hamburger steak in 1884 would be about the equivalent of one costing $2.29 today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under menus

11 responses to “A famous fake

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  2. Pingback: Hamburger origin and history - Ramshackle Pantry

  3. Lisa

    I know this blog is OLD but a few points seem to have been completely overlooked here that it is bugging me enough to make a case against the outright dismissal of this menu as being an outright “fake” ….

    1. Neither the NY Historical Society or any text on the Menu ever CLAIMED to be from “THE” main famous fine dining restaurant of Delmonico’s or any one of their smaller multiple locations for that matter. This was wrongly ASSUMED by people after the fact of its circulation and was RUMORED so much and as such to become a widely held false belief in the first place!

    2. Pointless to compare the offerings of the restaurants- refer to A.

    3. “After exhaustive research”? Steinberg and Prost discovered that the “likely origin” ? of this advertisement was an establishment at 494 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan run by “R. Barnabo.”. So they did NOT know for SURE ! Did Steinberg and Prost not even question WHY a man with the surname of Barnabo would not proudly name his own place “Barnabo’s” ? Perhaps it was ALREADY known as Delmonico’s decades before he took it over? In the 19th century there were numerous Delmonico families – as plentiful an Italian surname as any other common Italian surname, especially for NYC with a very large population of Italian immigrants. Who was the previous owner and what was the history of 494 Pearl Street BEFORE 1884?

    4. Printed menu maybe not “printed” at all? It looks HANDWRITTEN upon close inspection of the letters and with near perfect penmanship. Perhaps a proof of some type to be printed?

    5. WHO has the evidence to back up the claim that printed menus were simply “not in use” back in 1834? It that possibly stemming from another long held false belief just because someone somewhere once said so?
    Perhaps the term “menu” itself has led to the confusion being a more recent term, even as this did not call itself a “menu” but a Bill of Fare. It was the New York Historical Society in the 20th century that dubbed it a “menu” in their added RED INK print, as with the other red inked text that was later added.

    6. Bills of fare listing the dinner menu have been around for a long, long time as in for centuries, mostly though at lavish dinner affairs in private homes and mansions. Would it really have taken a genius so ahead of his time to have thought up the idea to note the price alongside the menu items back in 1834 when in the business of selling the same? Just because something wasn’t common place or widely known does not mean it did not exist.

    7. Quote: “Hamburger steak” was unknown by that name in the 1830s, first appearing in the 1880s” Really? SAYS WHO? “Hamburg” steaks were introduced to the US by German immigrants and were already WIDELY popular by the beginning of the 19th century . The term “hamburger” could have CERTAINLY been coined well before anyone officially recorded its existence for future food historians. And for that matter, who is to say that it wasn’t this so called “dive” whether in the 1880’s or as far back as 1834 that didn’t actually serve up “hamburgers” just as we know them today and on bread as a very hot menu item? Many have claimed to know the history of the first “hamburger” yet where and when it originated remains a mystery.

    • I believe it was created out of pieces of this and that, the items listed being a photo of an actual menu, prices probably added because they are not consistent with mid-19th century prices – and the headings added, along with the anachronistic term “restaurant.” Clearly meant to deceive, but in a joking way, and likely sold in gift shops in the mid-20th century and later adopted by some restaurants as a novelty advertisement. One story I read referenced seeing one in a gift shop in the tourist town of Rockport MA in 1962.

      1. But almost everyone who ever refers to this “bill of fare” does in fact assume it is from THE Delmonico.

      2. The reason it is not pointless is that so many people assume it is the real thing. And they do not realize that a fine restaurant never did and never would serve dishes like these, for any price.

      3. Undoubtedly Fancisco Barnabo did refer to his place as Barnabo’s. Of course there were other Delmonico’s (in fact I wrote a post about that too), but that still doesn’t make this a genuine menu. It is a fabrication, a hoax that combined various elements into one, and it would be meaningless if people didn’t think it was from the famous Delmonico restaurant.

      4. I have seen many, many bills of fare like the lower part of this one, and it looks exactly like those that date from the middle of the 19th century. The typeface is worn. The list of dishes very likely appeared in a newspaper advertisement, as was common, and this contributes to the appearance of the type.

      5. Not only were there virtually no known printed menus in the 1830s, cheap eating houses were well known for calling out their offerings verbally. Please note that the word “restaurant” had a very specific meaning in the 1830s and after, and an eating house would NEVER be referred to as a restaurant.

      6. Customers pretty well knew what prices to expect by the type of place, especially in the cheap eating houses. Prices changed very slowly, and so did the food offerings. Proprietors had no need of printed menus and having them would have added greatly to operating costs. Even in the early 20th century many small table d’hote restaurants wrote out daily menus by hand.

      7. I have seen thousands of menus/bills of fare, and hamburg/hamburger did not appear on them until the 20th century. The Depression of the 1930s made previously despised and feared ground meat acceptable. It may be that Germans ate ground beef in their homes in the 19th century, but it was not eaten by the general population then.

      BTW there has been quite a lot written about Delmonico, primarily the book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor, by Lately Thomas.

  4. GFT


  5. Anonymous

    My parents have this menu in their kitchen, us kids have been arguing over who should inherit it!

  6. Anonymous

    Yes, especially since the $1 coffee in 1887 calculated to today’s inflation would cost $24 in 2012. And since the average hotel room + breakfast at the turn of the century would cost about $3 ($78 in today’s money), I find it hard to believe that it would only buy you a fried liver.

  7. I live right around from Delmonico’s. Gorgeous! As so many old buildings in the FInancial District are.

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