- Historic Sites
The restaurant that changed the way we dine—
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
When Charles Dickens first came to the United States in 1842, he did not like our clothes, our speech, or our manners. But he reserved perhaps his deepest scorn for our dining habits. First, there was the custom in public places of summoning diners to the table by thwacking an “awful gong which shakes the very window frames as it reverberates through the house and horribly disturbs nervous Foreigners.” Then there was American food itself, which Dickens dismissed as “piles of indigestible matter.” It did not seem to make any difference where a foreigner dined in America. Be it in an inexpensive boardinghouse where, as one observer pointed out, “the Venetian blinds are kept scrupulously closed, for the double purpose of excluding flies and preventing too close a scrutiny of the upholstery” or in more well-appointed hostelries where men sat about “smoking seegars, their feet up on the white marble balustrade and spitting,” the social graces of the New World were not highly esteemed by visitors from the Old.
Continental travelers were particularly distressed to find no establishment where one could buy a decent meal. Restaurants had been a popular idea on the Continent ever since 1782, when chef Beauvillier first opened his doors in Paris. Frenchmen had a score of “restoratives” to indulge themselves in, from the haute cuisine of the Quadron Bleu to the raffish Tortoni’s, w. where Parisian bloods could have a duelist’s breakfast—patés, game birds, fish, broiled kidneys, and champagne—before going out to shoot each other.
A half-century later, however, there was still not a single restaurant in New York City worthy of the name. It was all but impossible to get a hot meal during the middle of the day, and businessmen were accustomed to stuffing cold sandwiches in their pockets before going to work in the morning. Professionally prepared meals, when they existed at all, tended to be either dreary boardinghouse fare or some startling local creation. At the Bank Coffee House, for instance, one of the specialities was a whole cooked bear wheeled into the dining room steaming hot and served standing up.
However, by the time Dickens returned for his second and last visit in 1868, an immense social and culinary revolution had taken place in America. The banquet held in Dickens’ honor at Delmonico’s Restaurant on Fourteenth Street was the equal of anything in Europe. Oysters, two soups, a delicate timbale, salmon and bass, filet mignon, stuffed lamb, braised lettuce, and grilled tomatoes served merely as opening courses. The dinner then proceeded on through another thirty dishes representing the highest accomplishments in international cuisine.
Tired and ill, Dickens originally had hoped to beg off from the affair, but the dinner acted as a tonic for the novelist, and near its close he was moved to speak. He referred to the unpleasant remarks about America he had made on his previous journey, and noted that this time, “I have been received with unsurpassable politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality [and] consideration.” Perhaps warmed by the vintage wines, he grew more expansive and added: “This testimony … I shall cause to be republished as an appendix to every copy of those two books of mine in which I have referred to America. And this I will do and cause to be done, not in mere love and thankfulness, but because I regard it as an act of plain justice and honor.”
Dickens’ enthusiasm suggested something of the importance of the House of Delmonico. In a generation, a prolific family of Swiss restaurateurs had almost singlehandedly snatched the napkin from under the chin of American diners, taught them to sit up properly, use the correct salad fork, and order in French.
First and foremost, Delmonico’s—in its ninety-six years of ascendancy there were eleven establishments in New York bearing the name of Delmonico, four of them operating concurrently—was the premier restaurant in America. Occasionally a famous guest would complain about the prices. William Makepeace Thackeray was astonished when his check for a small dinner came to four pounds per person, and warned his friend the poet Bayard Taylor, “Don’t, don’t give a dinner at Delmonico’s. I did it yesterday and it is a sin to spend so much money on your belly.”
Nevertheless, Thackeray returned several times. Delmonico’s had no competition.
Abraham Lincoln, after dining there during the Civil War, called Lorenzo Delmonico to his table and told the restaurateur, “In Washington, where I live, there are many mansions, but no cooks like yours.”
So lustrous was the restaurant’s image that in the 1880’s an English magazine informed its readers that the two most remarkable sights in America were “Delmonico’s and Yosemite Valley.” At about the same time Harper’s Weekly took a long and satisfied look at the emergence of the social and culinary niceties in America, and noted, “When we compare the commensalities of our country before the Delmonico period … with our condition in respect of dinner now, and think how large a share of the difference is due to Delmonico’s, we shall not think it extravagant to call Delmonico’s an agency of civilization.”