All 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.
There 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