Delmonico’s

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The restaurant specialized in creating unusual and elaborate dining-room settings. By general consensus, the most exotic was for the 1873 Luckemeyer Dinner, which one long-time Delmonico employee recalled as “the greatest affair that ever could be got up in any land.”

Edward Luckemeyer, a successful import-exporter, received an unexpected windfall in the form of a tenthousanddollar rebate from the government and decided to blow it all on a single meal at Delmonico’s. He gave the management a completely free hand to do whatever they wanted, and Delmonico’s responded with its masterpiece. The seventy-two guests were ushered into a sylvan wonderland. In the center of the giant table was a good-sized lake, some thirty feet long, complete with its own waterfall. The lake itself was surrounded by gently rolling hillocks and rafts of flowers, while songbirds twittered sweetly in gold cages suspended overhead. The star attractions were four swans on loan from Prospect Park that swam up and down the man-made waterway. The only graceless note of the evening was that the swans spent much of the dinner either fighting or mating. There is some confusion on this point on the part of the contemporary observers, who quite possibly had never before seen swans doing either.

But even at the peak of this sort of spectacular foolishness, forces were at work that eventually would bring down the citadel of haute cuisine. For three-quarters of a century Delmonico’s had been blessed with expert personal management by members of the family—first Giovanni and Pietro, and then Lorenzo “the magnificent.” Charles Constant Delmonico, the ideal restaurateur, according to Lately Thomas, was in charge until his sudden death in 1884. Charles Grist Delmonico gave up a career on Wall Street to manage the restaurant until he died in 1901. But in 1906 the Delmonico family, occupied with other things, let active management pass into the hands of the staff. The service was good, but the personal Delmonico touch was gone. From its first days on William Street, Delmonico’s had successfully marched up Fifth Avenue, keeping pace with a growing New York. The restaurant at the corner of Fourteenth Street from 1862 to 1876 had been the scene of some of Delmonico’s most spectacular triumphs. The restaurant at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street was also a success. But the final move up to the corner of Forty-fourth Street proved to be something of a mistake. An impressive structure on the outside, its kitchen area was badly designed and the staff found it difficult to work in—unnecessarily spacious and too high-ceilinged was one employee’s peculiar complaint. Used to the majesty of the earlier Delmonico’s, the customers were less than happy with the new place. The contemporary restaurant critic George S. Chappell dismissed the central palm court as “a dismal room, redeemed only by the perfect food.”

The long pre-eminence of Delmonico’s had given rise to inevitable competition, which drained away some of the old establishment’s best staff. When the Waldorf-Astoria opened in 1897, Oscar Tschirky left his post at Delmonico’s, and supported by a letter of recommendation and eight pages of signatures of Delmonico customers, took command of Peacock Alley, where he eventually became famous as “Oscar of the Waldorf.” Just before Rector’s began to spin the first revolving door in New York, the Broadway restaurant raided Delmonico’s of its saucier, maitre d’hotel, and business manager.

The opening of Sherry’s in 1890 cut the deepest. For the first time in the city’s history, a rival restaurant outshone Delmonico’s. “Sherry’s main dining-room,” said Chappell, “was one of the noblest examples of its kind that I have ever seen. Society was quick to recognize this. The newer generation of diners flocked to it.”

By Delmonico’s culinary standards, Sherry’s and the new “lobster palaces” such as Rector’s may have been second rate, but they were a lot of fun, and the young sports of the town could take a chorus girl to dinner without braving the disapproval of one of the Delmonicos.

Time and changing customs also took their toll. Delmonico’s was caught between a huge overhead—its investment in wines alone was seldom less than a quarter of a million dollars—and diminished public appetites. The gargantuan meals that had been so enjoyable in the 1870’s began to pall by the turn of the century.

The knockout blow, however, was delivered in 1919 with the passage of the Prohibition Act. That incredible experiment proved such a boon to the illicit liquor business in New York that the city’s fifteen thousand legal saloons were replaced by more than thirty thousand illegal speak-easies. But Delmonico’s was a world-famous landmark and could not hide behind a sliding door nor stash its booze in the basement the way “21” could. As the New York World editorialized, “the lights of hospitality go out under the blue rule, but the bootlegger thrives on the darkness.”