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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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