- Historic Sites
The restaurant that changed the way we dine—
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
The origins of this civilizing agency were humble enough. In the early 1800’s, a Swiss-born ship’s captain named Giovanni Del-Monico grew tired of the life of a merchant seaman in the West Indies trade and decided to go into business in New York. Giovanni knew wines, and his brother, Pietro, a confectioner from Berne, knew baking. In 1827 they opened a small shop on Williams Street in the Battery to sell wine by the bottle, along with counter service offering freshly brewed coffee, chocolates, and French pastries. The sign out front read DELMONICO'S. One family legend has it that the brothers decided it was cheaper to change their names than it was to have the sign repainted. In any event, Delmonico’s was established, and New York got its first glimpse of the style that was to mark this extraordinary culinary house for almost a century. The establishment was scrupulously clean, something of a rarity for public places in the nineteenth century. Delmonico’s used only the best and freshest of ingredients, and Europeans living in New York found its sweets and pastries were the closest thing in town to what they had eaten on the Continent. As an added attraction Delmonico’s featured the first lady cashier in the city.
The little shop proved to be a gold mine, and the brothers ploughed their profits back into the business until, in 1831, they were able to lease the adjoining building and open a proper “Restaurant Français,” offering a hot lunch. Nestled in the heart of New York’s commercial district, Delmonico’s brought about a fundamental change in the American business scene. According to Lately Thomas, a biographer of the Delmonico family, “businessmen began to think little of taking an hour from their preoccupations to relish an appetizing luncheon, immaculately presented. A delicate dish of veal, it was learned, might even be an aid when broaching a subject of equal delicacy to a business associate.”
Although Delmonico’s specialized in serving the finest in local produce, and even had its own farm in Brooklyn to ensure a continuous supply of fresh vegetables, it remained steadfastly European. Perhaps its most significant importation was the arrival, in 1831, of young Lorenzo Delmonico, a nephew of the original owners. Only nineteen, and with no previous experience, young Lorenzo became the beau ideal of restaurateurs. He took over the active directorship of Delmonico’s in 1842 and was responsible for its eventual ascendancy as the greatest restaurant America had ever produced. Lorenzo was a man of the most precise habits. Every morning of his working life he arrived at the Fulton and Washington markets at 4:00 A.M.to select personally the meats, game, fish, and fowl for the evening meal. Smoking one of the thirty licorice-black Havana cigars that he would consume during the day, he was at the restaurant by 8:00 A.M., and then went home for a nap. He returned to supervise dinner and left again on the dot of midnight.
In 1862 Delmonico’s secured the services of Charles Ranhofer as principal chef. An ample man with a white mustache, Ranhofer ruled over the kitchens at Delmonico’s with autocracy. It was said that Ranhofer was New York’s first chef and there was no second. Under his direction, Delmonico’s prepared mountains of foods every day. A typical menu would run to a dozen pages, offering hundreds of dishes. And if it wasn’t on the menu, the customer need only ask and it would be prepared. Several of Delmonico’s most famous contributions to the American dining scene came about as a result of suggestions from customers. The Wall Street scion Foxhall Keene was partial to chicken in a cream sauce, and was honored with a dish we now know as chicken à la king. Ben Wenburg had an idea for the preparation of lobster with cream and sherry. For a while this creation was known as Lobster à la Wenburg. Some time later, however, Wenburg committed the unpardonable sin of engaging in a public brawl at Delmonico’s, and his name was banished from the menu. The dish reappeared as lobster Newburg.
With Ranhofer in the kitchen and Lorenzo in the front, Delmonico’s prospered mightily. The service was peerless. As one observer noted, “the dishes succeed each other with a fidelity and beauty like the well composed tones of a painting or a symphony. It was a brilliant overture to the noble opera henceforth to be played....”
“No Delmonico has ever thought himself above his business,” remarked an old customer recalling the long and glorious reign of the restaurant, “and for that reason no gentleman has ever thought himself above the Delmonicos.” Generations of New Yorkers, to whom the expression “dinner at Del’s” was the watchword of elegance, were fanatically loyal to the restaurant. That fidelity paid handsome dividends when Lorenzo, whose astuteness apparently was limited to the restaurant business, invested in drilling for oil in Brooklyn. In 1851 the enterprise collapsed and forced him into bankruptcy.
To make good his debts, he was forced to put Delmonico’s up for auction. Aghast at the thought of such a venerable institution changing hands, the New York financial community held firm, and not a single bid was received. Instead, Lorenzo’s customers loaned him the money to keep going until the restaurant could repay his losses.