Tag Archives: Delmonico’s

America’s finest restaurant, revisited

In the 19th century and well into the 20th there was absolutely no doubt that Delmonico’s was the nation’s finest restaurant, for decades the only one with a worldwide reputation. It was one of the few places in this country that European visitors compared favorably with the glittering restaurants of Paris’s “super mall” of the 19th century, the Palais Royal. [above: cafe section of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street Delmonico’s]

Founded by two Italian-Swiss immigrants in 1823 as a small confectionery shop in New York City, it soon grew into a “restaurant Français” occupying various New York City locations over its nearly 100-year run under family ownership. The Delmonico restaurants of the 1830s and subsequent decades were favored by foreign visitors, but soon Americans came to appreciate them too as their fame spread. As a form of homage — sometimes tongue-in-cheek — restaurants high and low, all over the USA, christened themselves Delmonico’s.

During much of the 19th century, most of America’s restaurants were located in hotels; up to the Civil War most operated on the American plan. This meant that everyone sat at large tables with others not necessarily of their choosing while bowls and platters of whatever was being served that day were set on the table to be shared – or not — by the diners. The Delmonicos introduced the European plan which allowed guests to have their own table and order just what they wanted, prepared the way they wanted.

An 1838 menu revealed that fine preparation was only part of Delmonico’s appeal. It also offered a profusion of dishes including 12 soups, 32 hors d’oeuvres, 28 entrées of beef, 46 of veal, 22 of game, 48 of fish, plus 51 vegetable or egg choices, and 45 pastries, cakes, and other desserts. (That 11-page menu is replicated in Lately Thomas’s classic book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor.) [Beaver street location shown above]

The number of dishes offered at Delmonico’s is overwhelming proof that the abbreviated reproduction menu that is commonly displayed and offered for sale online is a fake.

The original Delmonico brothers’ mission was what one observer writing in The Nation in 1881 characterized as establishing “a little oasis of civilization in the vast gastronomic waste which America at the time of their arrival presented.” For many Americans, the enjoyment of food bordered on sinfulness. Not only was it viewed as a monetary extravagance, claimed the essay, but there was a feeling among reform-minded people “that all time devoted to the table must be subtracted from that dedicated to spiritual improvement.”

So lauded was Delmonico’s that it’s necessary to point out that it had its critics who disliked the extravagant balls and banquets it hosted. In 1865, a year in which the newly Civil-War-rich were pouring into Delmonico’s, Morton Peto, a British railway and real estate developer, held a banquet for 100 guests. The cost was an astounding $250 a head. For comparison, as much as sixteen years later, the restaurant paid its waiters $30 a month. Another banquet that drew public disapproval was the dinner for James G. Blaine, a Presidential candidate in 1884. His backers, wealthy men who stood to gain from his election, were mocked in a front page cartoon in The World, which named the event after a Babylonian prince who tried to engineer his ascension to the throne. [above: front page of The World, 1884]

For a long time the Delmonico’s menu was entirely in French, without translation, a problem for English-only guests. If a guest ordered badly he (only men were given this task) imagined he could hear his waiter snickering. As a New York Times reporter put it in 1859, “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine in the wrong place . . .” And he might end up with a dinner of pickles and brandied peaches as happened to one hapless patron. The solution was to throw yourself on the mercy of the waiter and ask for his recommendations. [above: Fifth Avenue and 14th Street]

It’s interesting to note that Charles Delmonico, who ran the family empire following the death of Lorenzo, was said to be fond of the Italian restaurant Café Moretti. There he ordered risotto, a favorite dish that his restaurant’s French cooks did not know how to prepare. [above: Delmonico’s, Fifth Avenue and 26th Street]

Over time Delmonico’s moved from their initial “society” restaurant on the corner of Beaver, William, and South William streets [shown above, third from top] to three successive Fifth Avenue locations. Like all wise businesses, they were following in the path of their wealthy patrons. In 1862 they moved into an elegant mansion at Fifth Ave and 14th Street and in 1876 jumped up to 26th. In 1897 they settled in their final Fifth Avenue location at 44th Street, facing off with arch-rival Sherry’s. [above: Fifth Avenue and 44th Street]

Through the years the Delmonicos always kept at least one other location farther downtown for businessmen and politicians. The restaurant at 22 Broad Street served Stock Exchange brokers and speculators. It was said that for them “not to go to Delmonico’s for one’s lunch or tipple was to lose caste on ‘the Street.’”

In 1897 Delmonico’s yielded to music and smoking in its hallowed halls, a sign many regarded as evidence of a downhill slide. By then the 44th Street Delmonico’s was the last one doing business. It closed in 1923, a victim of weak management, increasingly informal dining customs, and Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

Delmonico’s was one of my early posts, and I realized I hadn’t given the subject its full due. This is an enhanced version.

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Finds of the day

Today I discovered two wonderful small cards at an antique book and ephemera show held just a few blocks from where I live.

This may not sound like a big deal – unless you are a collector. These were very special cards.

One was old and rare, the other more recent but by a favorite designer.

The older one, shown above, was for club called Sans Souci which held a dinner at Delmonico’s on 5th Avenue and 14th Street. The date of a dinner was just a few years after the Delmonico brothers opened at that location, which was destined to become their most fashionable one.

About the Sans Souci Club, I know nothing. But I did find out that there were many, many clubs with that name all over the United States in the 19th century. It’s possible that it might have been the one in Brooklyn about the time of this dinner. It was an amateur drama club which fits with the theme of the card.

As rare as the Sans Souci card may be, my favorite find was the newer card, probably from about 1986, designed for the Restaurant Florent by Tibor Kalman. He cleverly used simple, familiar symbols found in the Yellow Pages (except maybe for the gun?). It is printed on what has been described as shirt cardboard with flecks in it. He used similar cardboard for the restaurant’s matches.

Kalman’s card was designed while he was working with M&Co. which he founded along with others. It is in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt museum with other work of his done at M&Co., including quite a number of items for Restaurant Florent.

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Taste of a decade: the 1830s

Although the U. S. population exceeded 12 million, only about 5% lived in the ten largest cities in 1830. Most Americans lived in sparsely populated areas where they rarely encountered restaurants — nor could they afford them.

Nonetheless, those who did patronize “restaurants” – then more likely to be called restorators, refectories, restaurats, eating houses, coffee houses, or victualing cellars – noticed a growing French influence grafted onto the predominant plain English style of cooking. The word “restaurant,” when used in this decade, usually had the modifier “French” preceding it.

To the relief of diners, it was becoming easier to find eating places that would serve dishes a la carte at the hour the diner wished to eat rather than having a pre-determined meal served only at set hours.

At most eating places the three F’s dominated menus: Fish, Flesh, and Fowl. And, of course, oysters were tremendously popular with all social classes. Occasionally, a restaurant offering a more varied bill of fare could be found, such as that at Robert G. Herring’s American Coffee House in Philadelphia that includes Green “Pease,” String Beans, Lobsters, Frogs, Sardines, Anchovy Toast, Omelet with Asparagus, and Strawberries and Cream.

Patrons of wealth and sophistication indulged in the finest foods that could be found in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. According to one observer, worldly young men were becoming knowledgeable about “culinary details” in the early 1830s. “It has become wonderfully fashionable lately in discoursing upon eatable matters,” wrote the author of A Short Chapter on Dining, “to parade the names of a dozen or two of French dishes.”

At the same time a spirit of abstemiousness was spreading as people rejected “ardent spirits” such as gin, rum, whiskey, and brandy. Temperance followers also condemned restaurants themselves, viewing most of them as “grog shops.” During the cholera pandemic of 1832, some temperance advocates went so far as to blame the high death rate among the poor not on urban filth and polluted drinking water, but on alcohol consumption, particularly by Irish immigrants.

In the larger cities, New York especially, many couples and families chose to live in hotels and boarding houses rather than run their own households, finding it both cheaper and easier. Others, who lived in their own residences, took their meals in nearby hotels or had them delivered by a restaurateur.

Two English women who visited this country wrote scathing accounts of life here, painting Americans as shallow, grasping, and dull. In Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, she observed how American conversation frequently included the word “dollar,” and also noted, “They consume an extraordinary quantity of bacon.” The actress Fanny Kemble’s Journal (1835) included among its “vituperative remarks” criticism of New York hotels and their rigid meal schedules.

As railroads and waterways were extended, newly settled areas of the country gained access to more oysters, seafood, and exotic fruits. In 1832 a traveler recorded that he ate “fine sea fish and oysters one hundred and fifty miles inland – drank punch from fruit imported from the Indies, at Pittsburg, and sat down to a dessert in Cincinnati, the ingredients of which were the delicacies of every clime.”

Highlights

1831 After visiting the dining room of the recently opened Tremont House in Boston, a Baltimore man writes that he finds it an “essential improvement in tavern keeping” that everyone dining there receives a bill of fare listing all dishes to be served at that meal. Otherwise, he comments, a diner departing from the dining hall usually discovers favorite dishes placed on another part of the long shared table that never made it to him.

1832 In Domestic Manners of the Americans, Frances Trollope asks why Americans are so fond of boarding in residential hotels: “What can induce so many . . . citizens to prefer these long, silent tables, scantily covered with morsels of fried ham, salt fish and liver, to a comfortable loaf of bread with their wives and children at home?” she writes.

1833 Harvey D. Parker – who will establish the luxury Parker House and Restaurant in 1855 — takes over the Tremont Restorator in a cellar on Boston’s Court Street and publishes the protein-rich bill of fare shown here.

1833 The owner of a new refectory on Whale Street in Nantucket advertises that he will provide Pies, Tarts, Custards, Oysters, Fish Chowder, Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Mush & Milk, Beer, and Cider, but that he has promised his landlord he will “keep no ardent spirits of any description for sale” even though he knows it will mean lower profits.

1834 Francois Parrot, “French Cook, Restaurateur & Confectioner” in Philadelphia, announces “that after a long residence with the Count of Survilliers, he has, with recommendations from him for professional capacity and moral character (which he will be happy to shew any one), determined to set up a Cooking Establishment and Eating House in Philadelphia.”

1835 The popular Alexander “Sandy” Welsh, president of the Hoboken Turtle Club and famous for his green turtle soup, expands his Terrapin Lunch in New York City and is now able to accommodate 150 seated in small groups.

1836 After the opening of the Merchant’s Exchange Lunch on Broadway, a patron sends a glowing review to the editor of the New York Herald citing its fine cooking, clean tablecloths, damask napkins, excellent ventilation, and cheerful servers. “Only think,” he writes, “a plate of the best meat, including four kinds of vegetables, and the best butter also, in these dear times too, is only eighteen pence.”

1837 Following the destruction of their restaurant on William Street in the great fire of 1835, the Delmonico brothers open a new 4-story restaurant on the corner of Beaver and William Streets. [1880 photo shown at top, demolished 1890] Visitors are overwhelmed with its magnificence, particularly its wine vaults that extend 180 feet under the streets and hold 20,000 bottles of imported French and German wine. The restaurant’s resplendence is all the more striking as the city suffers bank failures, worthless currency, and economic depression.

1837 Outrage erupts when New Yorker Samuel E. Cornish, editor of The Colored American, discloses that he was refused service at a temperance eating house run by an abolitionist Scottish immigrant. Explaining that he has never before encountered discrimination of this sort, Cornish writes, “It remained for a foreigner, in a cellar cook-room, to insult a native citizen, of 17 years residence in this city; and to deny a minister of Christ, of gray hairs, and twenty-five years’ standing in the Presbyterian church, a cup of Tea.”

1837 As a result of economic collapse, businesses distrust paper money and refuse to give coins [aka “specie”] as change. When they do agree to accept bills they return change in the form of tickets good for future purchases. A patron of a NYC eating house becomes indignant when “a negro named Downing,” “a black villain,” refuses to accept his dollar bill. But the newspaper to which he has complained defends the proprietor, asking, “Why should any man be compelled to take worthless paper money for his goods and wares? When I visit Downing’s, I never give or take paper money. I pay in specie entirely.”

1839 At a “restaurat” in New Orleans, patrons attending summer balls are warned not to bring their guns.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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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

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Who invented … lobster Newberg?

The tale has often been told of Benjamin Wenberg who created a fabulous new dish at Delmonico’s restaurant in NYC sometime in the 1870s. The punch line revolves around how Charles Delmonico changed the name to Lobster Newberg to spite Wenberg after the two men had an argument. Do you believe the story? I am suspicious of it.

As a historian I run across many legends of this type. There is always a delightful little detail that makes the story click and lures journalists into repeating it so often that it becomes undisputed truth. Less catchy, and thus less repeated versions of the Lobster Newberg story, suggested that Wenberg did not want his name used so the name of the dish was altered slightly – or that the Delmonicos named the dish Newberg right from the start out of respect for Wenberg’s privacy.

It’s doubtful that Wenberg invented the dish. A sauce made of cream, egg yolks, butter, and sherry wine – the à la Newberg part of Lobster Newberg – was known as terrapin sauce and was in use before the 1870s.

Did Wenberg have anything to do with Lobster Newburg? Some stories imply he was the first to use the sauce with lobster. To me it seems doubtful that he would be more likely than top chefs to see its wider potential. In fact at least one Delmonico chef claimed to have developed the dish. In yet another version of the story, Delmonico’s named it for him because he ordered it so often.

Maybe. Whatever. As far as I can tell, no one has ever found the name Lobster Wenberg on a Delmonico’s menu. Nor has Lobster Newberg been found on menus from the 1870s or 1880s.

Although Benjamin Wenberg may be altogether irrelevant to the story of Lobster Newberg, he was an actual person, a well-known figure in New York City in the 1850s and until his death in 1885. He was in the shipping business, buying, selling, and chartering sea-faring vessels. At least one of his ships, Panchita, was suspected of engaging in the slave trade in 1856 and 1857.

The dish attributed to him became popular in the 1890s and the legend of its naming was oft repeated in this decade. It was a favorite chafing dish recipe for home entertaining and any restaurant with the least pretensions was bound to have it on the menu. Restaurants occasionally prepared it tableside in a chafing dish. Shrimp, crab, scallops, and sometimes frog legs were also offered à la Newburg.

These dishes were usually spelled with a U on restaurant menus. Which is another oddity since Wenberg’s name was usually spelled with an E.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Taste of a decade: 1890s restaurants

1893NYCAs the decade starts there are over 19,000 restaurant keepers, a number overshadowed by more than 71,000 saloon keepers, many of whom also serve food for free or at nominal cost. The institution of the “free lunch” has become so well entrenched that an industry develops to supply saloons with prepared food. As big cities grow, the number of restaurants swells, with most located in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, and the Midwest where young single workers live in rooming houses that do not provide meals. Southern states and the thinly populated West, apart from California, have few restaurants.

Cheap restaurants such as lunch counters, lunch wagons, and ethnic cafés are the leading types, buoyed by the heavy immigration of Southern Europeans, particularly Southern Italians. Chinese restaurants become more common in the East. More unescorted women patronize restaurants, particularly in downtown shopping districts and around office buildings where they work. Bigotry increases and, despite civil rights laws, Afro-Americans face greater rejection by restaurants.

An economic panic in 1893 sends the country into a severe four-year-long Depression. Self-service lunchrooms which operate on the honor system begin to notice that one out of every ten patrons shaves their check. Interest grows in an “automat” from Germany in which food is not accessible until money is deposited in a slot. Rumors spread that one will debut in St. Louis and another in Philadelphia.

1893LadyinRedNear the decade’s end, the “Gay 90s” commence and those who are able and so inclined pursue the good life, which increasingly includes going to restaurants for the evening. It is still considered somewhat disreputable to do this, so some people go out to dinner only when visiting another city.

Highlights

1891 The Vienna Bakery restaurant of Los Angeles creates a stir when it advertises that it never serves “come backs” (food left on other people’s plates). “When a meal is served its remains are thrown away,” it insists. The following week it reaffirms the claim and further boasts, “No Chinaman Handles any of the food cooked at THE VIENNA.”

1893 Chicago is full of horse-drawn lunch wagons which cluster around railroad depots and the entrances to Jackson Park to take advantage of the crowds attending the World’s Columbian Exposition.

delmonicobdwy5th26th921893 A drunken man fires five shots into Delmonico’s in New York City (5th Ave. and 26th St., pictured), later declaring he believes in equality among the classes and wanted to “give the rich people I saw in there enjoying themselves a good scare.”

1894 The Maverick Restaurant opens in Golden, Colorado, for the express purpose of serving 5-cent meals to the vast army of unemployed men who earn credit to pay for the meal of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable by cutting and stacking wood. Unlimited amounts of bread are included but no butter.

1894 In Chicago, jobless men are thankful for free food that saloons provide with the purchase of a beer. One declares, “This free lunch is all that keeps me alive. I have been out of work for three months…. Five cents now buys me a meal and another nickel goes for lodging. That is what I live on and I consider myself lucky.”

Marston's3501895 Competition from cafés and restaurants in Massachusetts has just about wiped out the old boarding houses where renters had all their meals supplied. One reason is that people prefer restaurants because they get to choose what and when they eat. – Boston’s Marston restaurant, established by sea captain Russell Marston in the 1840s, opens a women’s lunch room on Hanover Street.

1896 With the passage of the Raines Law, which permits only hotels to sell liquor on Sunday (the busiest day for many restaurants), some New York restaurants begin to permit prostitutes to ply their trade in upstairs rooms which they have furnished with beds to qualify as hotels. The Maryland Kitchen on 34th Street, known for Southern cooking, and Gonfarone’s Italian restaurant in the Village are two of the many which take this route.

1897 In Michigan and Indiana bills are introduced in the legislature to outlaw French on menus. The Michigan bill is introduced by a legislator who had an embarrassing experience in a Chicago restaurant. Unable to figure out a menu, he ended up with two bowls of soup and some toothpicks.

1897 In the midst of the bicycling craze, two debutantes open a pink and white tea room serving lettuce sandwiches and café frappé to cyclists in Greenwich CT. Meanwhile a black cyclist who stops at Chicago’s Old Vienna café on Cottage Grove orders a lunch that never arrives. When he presses the manager, he is told, “You ought to know we don’t serve n*****s here.”

1898 During the war between the United States and Spain, public opinion against Spain whipped up by “yellow” (nationalist, sensationalist) journalism causes some restaurant keepers to rename “Spanish omelets.” Instead they are listed on menus as “tomato omelets.”

1899 A Chicago newspaper runs a story with a headline that reads: “Swell Gothamites Now Dine in Cafes. Members of New York’s Smart Set, with Some Exceptions, Have Adopted a Bohemian Fad Inaugurated in Paris and London. Society People Now Court Publicity and Love to Exhibit Their Marvelous Toilets [clothes] for the Admiration of the Vulgar. It Is Predicted That This Innovation, of Questionable Taste, Will Spread to Chicago.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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