- Historic Sites
The restaurant that changed the way we dine—
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
Lorenzo had unbounded faith in the future of New York City and bet heavily on its continuing prosperity. As Manhattan grew northward, he would build a new restaurant farther uptown than the previous one. Delmonico’s became in effect, the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company of the newly rich. Its wealthy patrons knew that after an exhausting day of stock manipulation, there would be a plate of canvasback duck and magnums of oeil de perdrix champagne waiting for them at Delmonico’s.
In time, Delmonico’s became the natural habitat of the celebrity. Every President from Monroe to Franklin Delano Roosevelt dined there. On a less exalted political level, Boss Tweed and his henchmen spent many a pleasant evening plundering New York City in one of Delmonico’s private dining rooms. Lillian Russell was a habitué and often put away more food than her regular escort, Diamond Jim Brady. On the day the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, came to New York in 1850, she was wined and dined at Delmonico’s. In 1871 the New York Yacht Club gave Grand Duke Alexis a dinner at Del’s that caused the New York Herald to remark that “for $5,000, Delmonico can make fifty people gastronomically quite comfortable.” Oscar Wilde paused at the customs office only long enough to declare his genius, before dashing straight for the men’s bar.
The heart of Delmonico’s trade, however, was not so much visiting peerage or international celebrities but those New Yorkers who were going about the difficult and exacting business of being rich. A social history of the upper classes in New York during the last quarter of the nineteenth century could have been compiled without leaving the reservation desk of Delmonico’s Fourteenth Street restaurant. In 1870 Archibald Gracie King, an important New York banker, broke with tradition to become the first man in New York society to give a private ball under other than his own roof—a dinner dance for more than eight hundred guests to commemorate the debut of his eldest daughter. The party was a smash, and thereafter social arbiters deemed it fashionable to give such affairs outside the home and let someone else clean up the dishes.
The first man to really take advantage of this new social turn of events was that curious symbol of old-line society, Ward McAllister, who once noted, “the great secret of life is to be contented with the position to which it has pleased God to call you.” God had not been pleased to call McAllister to a particularly high position, but He had done extremely well by McAllister’s wife, which is the next best thing. Armed with her money, and the overbearing mien of the headwaiter he so resembled, McAllister set about supervising the social order of things in New York, and pursuing perhaps his greatest passion, the sponsorship of elegant parties. His masterwork was the series of dinner dances known as the Patriarch Balls, which grew from his determination to recreate in New York the kind of “brilliant assemblage of people” known at Almack’s in London, where the air was so rarefied it was difficult for a newcomer to get the time of day until the Duke of Wellington said hello to him. In 1872 McAllister organized a twenty-five-man executive committee to be responsible for the dances which were to be held at Delmonico’s. Among the leaders of the committee were some of the oldest names in New York, including John Jacob Astor, William Astor, William Schermerhorn, and Alex Van Rensselaer. Together they decreed that each of the twenty-five patriarchs had the right to invite four ladies and five gentlemen, including themselves and their families. Hewing to the concept that it takes “four generations to make a gentleman,” McAllister decreed that “Patriarchs were chosen solely for their fitness,” not just for money, and that the success of the balls “lay in making them select … in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation … anyone repeatedly invited had a secure social position.” The competition for the prized invitations was fierce. McAllister found himself continually being approached by women saying, “Kind sir, I have a daughter…”
“My dear madam,” McAllister would reply, “say no more. You have my deepest sympathy,” and then retreat to the safety of the men’s lounge.
The Patriarch Balls of the 1872–73 season were among the most elegant the city had ever seen, but members of a new social order were already knocking on the bronze doors of Delmonico’s, and there was no way to keep them out.
As the socialite Mrs. Helen Van Rensselaer noted, the 1870’s was a “period of great economic expansion. People were rushing to New York to make their fortunes … a wealthy, extravagant, spectacular group of no orderly social growth.” On December 26, 1874, a group of the city’s most prominent bachelors gave a dinner dance at Delmonico’s, inviting, Mrs. Van Rensselaer said, “numerous men and women heretofore not considered among the social elect.” Known as the Bouncer’s Ball, it served, “unofficial but positive notice upon the aristocratic, exclusive set that … social prominence … was to be expressed henceforth in terms of millions rather than of lineage.”
The dinner party had risen to a minor art form in America during the nineteenth century, and these new millionaires were more than happy to pay the steep tariff a really elaborate affair demanded. And for more than fifty years Delmonico’s was famous for mounting the most magnificent dinner parties in the city.