Tag Archives: French cuisine

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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L’addition: French on the menu, drat it

In his 1904 Culinary Handbook, Charles Fellows pledged: One of my first thoughts in writing this handbook was to abstain from French terms. I said to myself, I WILL WRITE AN AMERICAN CULINARY HANDBOOK FOR AMERICANS. I have heard it frequently stated that the terms for the bill of fare could not be properly represented in the American language. I SAY IT CAN, and as proof positive you have it here. There are no French terms used for the receipts [recipes] of this book, and the headings as given are what should in my opinion be placed on the bill of fare, as perfectly adequate in describing the dish.

He was unable to keep his pledge. There are French terms throughout the handbook. On one typical page appear not only the fairly commonplace French words purée and sauté, but also béchamel, epigramme, haricot, matelote, saûtoir, and vélouté. He duly translates Chicken Chasseur as “Broiled chicken, Hunter’s Style,” but then instructs the cook to serve it with “sauce chasseur.”

Fellows felt that many dishes on restaurant menus went unordered simply because diners didn’t know what they were. This may have been true, especially since the dining public was broadening in the early 20th century, bringing unsophisticated but monied newcomers into  high-class restaurants.

French terms began to appear on American menus in the 1850s. By the 1890s their use was considered essential for luxury restaurants. But the tide began to turn around the 1920s when people started eating lighter, faster meals and menus were greatly scaled down, simplified, and rendered in English. The 1918 menu of the Tuxedo Rotisserie and Grill actually listed “Frog Legs in Paper Bags” rather than the dreaded en papillote. But, there are terms that remain today and still puzzle diners. Many of the menu terms below were not well known by most Americans in the 1890s, nor even 40 years later.

compote – a dish of fruit stewed in sweetened liquid, sometimes a dessert as was the case with Compote of Apricots and Rice which appeared on an 1893 menu at San Francisco’s Delmonico’s Restaurant. But I have also seen “Pigeons en compote” on an 1841 menu.

fricandeau – sliced meat or fish fried or braised and sauced, similar to a fricasée. In 1839 Fricandeau of Veal appeared in the French section of a menu of the Astor House, a first-class NYC hotel. This term is antiquated today.

glacé – according to Restaurant Menu Planning (1954), this word is an excellent one for menus, right up there with oven-baked and crisp. It properly refers to reduced meat stock that can be used to give flavor and sheen to dishes. Sweet Breads Glace was on the menu for a special dinner at the Rankin House, Columbus GA, in 1887.

jardiniere – Le Jardinier de Macaroni à la Italienne appeared on an 1843 Tremont House menu under Hors D’Oeuvres. In 1915 the Budweiser Café in Indianapolis IN offered “Fricandeaux (perhaps indicating by the “x” that there is more than one slice) of Veal, Jardiniere” for a mere 30c. Jardiniere indicates a dish served with a garnish of cut up mixed vegetables, perhaps in gravy. In 1965 the Armour Company advertised a new product which provided restaurants with flexible film pouches containing eight servings of braised oxtails jardiniere.

la financiere – Sweetbread patties a la Financiere as served at Fleischmann’s in NYC in 1906 undoubtedly were patties made from the thymus glands of veal or young lambs with a garnish or sauce of button mushrooms, bits of truffle, and possibly some cockscombs (yes, the red things atop roosters’ heads) with Sherry or Madeira wine.

maitre d’hotel – The Broiled Halibut, maitre d’hotel on the menu of New York’s Café des Ambassadeurs in 1905 was fish with a melted butter sauce to which was added lemon juice, chopped parsley, and a little grated nutmeg. The popular and expensive Jack’s in San Francisco dared in 1947 to offer Broiled Spring Salmon Steak à la Maitre d’Hôtel, giving the words their full accented treatment. (The menu also featured Tripe à la Mode de Caen.)

ragout – this word, now antique, was almost synonymous with French cooking in the early 19th century and critics always referred to it when criticizing French food for its overseasoned character which was believed to be unhealthy and induce drinking. In short it means spicy stewed meat and vegetables. When given a French name, western restaurants could sell stew at high prices to miners who felt they were living large. Ragout of Mutton appeared on a 1903 menu of the Occidental Hotel, Breckenridge CO.

rissole – According to Delmonico’s long-time chef Charles Ranhofer, in the 1890s rissoles were one of many items that could be served for the hors d’oeuvres course which followed soup. They were made of chopped meat, or possibly fish, vegetables, or even fruit, which was held together with egg, formed into a rounded shape, encased in crumbs or pastry, and fried.

quenelles – meat or fish forced through a small mesh and formed into balls, such as the marrow balls in the Green Turtle Soup aux Quennells a la Moelle served at the Central Hotel in Charlotte NC in 1896 or Quenelle of Calves Liver, German Style, served at Kentucky’s Louisville Hotel in 1857. Not long ago I attended a forum in NYC which declared quenelles, and the fancy cuisine they represent, totally decrepit.

vol au vent – a pastry basket from which a “lid” is cut and replaced after inserting a filling of delicately sauced meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit. The case is then baked. Sometimes found grossly misspelled on menus as in “voloven garnie de clams a la poulette,” which presumably is pastry with a chicken filling garnished with clams.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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America’s first restaurant

It’s always risky to declare that anything is a first. In some ways Julien’s Restorator, newly opened in July of 1793, may have been similar to the taverns that had been in business in Boston for ages. Almost any kind of eating place at this time would have taken in boarders who not only regularly ate their meals on the premises but slept there as well.

What set Julien’s apart was that he modeled his restorator on the restaurants of Paris. Like them, he emphasized the healthful attributes of his dishes (intended to restore health — thus “restorator” and the French “restaurant”), presented diners with a written menu from which they could choose, and charged them only for what they ordered rather than following the prevailing custom of providing a buffet-type meal at a set price. The newspaper advertisement of which this is a part states that he will furnish soups, broths, pastry, beef, bacon, poultry, wines, and cordials. He later added oysters, green turtle soup, and coffee.

Julien’s full name was Jean Gilbert Julien and he had previously worked as a private cook. At the bottom of the advertisement he states he was “Late Steward to the Honorable Monsieur Letombe, Consul of the French Republic.” He was successful at the Leverett’s Lane site and soon moved up to a substantial house on Milk Street where he remained in business until his untimely death in 1805, whereupon his widow Hannah ran the restaurant for ten years and then sold it to another Frenchman.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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