- Historic Sites
The Taste Of Time
All across America there are restaurants that serve up the spirit and conviviality of eras long past
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
Mr. Henry Erkins had a flash of inspiration in 1908. He could see every detail of it in his mind. Nevertheless he resisted the temptation to say too much at his first press conference, in case someone stole the idea and opened their own five-thousand-seat waiterless restaurant with ancient Assyrian decorations.
According to Erkins, a well-known architect, the ancient motif was the only one appropriate to a modern restaurant, and his restaurant, planned for Times Square in New York, was certainly going to be mod- ern. Customers would sit down at round tables and order their food by writing on “automatic pads” connected electrically to the kitchen down below. Then for the amazing part. “Not the entire table, but the inner part of the table will be lowered,” Erkins explained, “leaving the rim before the guests.” In the kitchen chefs would be waiting to rush over with the food that had been ordered and to load it into place on the middle of the table, which would then rise, up and up, back to the rest of the table and the guests awaiting. Busboys would stand nearby, ready to handle complaints, but then, what could possibly go wrong?
Henry Erkins’s dream restaurant never did open. “New Yorkers only want to go to places where they can’t get a table,” a Broadway swell declared, on hearing about the five thousand seats.
As a flash of inspiration it was just that: a flash, representing the many hundreds of thousands of lights blinking on and then off throughout the history of restaurants in this country. A restaurant isn’t a castle or a bridge after all; it isn’t planned to last for centuries. It’s of the moment, planned only to pay the bills and perhaps to realize some conceit on the part of the founder. A tiny percentage, however, conceived with more or even a lot less enthusiasm than something waiterless and Assyrian, keep on burning the same steady way from their first day. They make a shaft of light even through generations, and if nothing of importance changes, then that is how it happens that a moment that began in 1810 or 1883, or 1912 or 1939, is still lit today, at a table in a room at one of the few hundred historic restaurants in America.
The country’s first formal restaurant opened on December 13, 1827; on that day two Swiss brothers named Delmonico began to serve light meals in a New York City storefront. It was a modest effort by the standards of the family’s later establishments, but it baffled its initial clientele with a weird new notion: dining out purely for the sake of dining out. People didn’t know quite how to do it at first; they wandered in, read the menu, and wandered out again. As an enticement, the Delmonico restaurant served exquisite French dishes, with fresh vegetables and classic sauces. They were vastly different from the usual fare, judging by the reaction of a woman who had been reared on early-American food. “Vile greasy compounds,” she called them, warning her grandson that he would poison his stomach eating at Delmonico, or Del’s, as the rakes took to calling it.
Before Delmonico people ate at home or went visiting to have boiled meat and bread at somebody else’s house.
Delmonico instigated so much change in American dining that the history of restaurants in this country divides across its birthday. Boiled meats and bread made up the unvarying sustenance of the earlier era, and practically all meals were taken at home, to the extent that when in 1750 a New York tavern began to serve an “ordinary,” or a standard lunch, so that businessmen wouldn’t have to go all the way home at lunchtime, it not only was news across town but was attacked as leading inevitably to the dissolution of family life. Whatever it is that restaurants purvey in terms of variety, fantasy, or power, early Americans apparently didn’t require it. Most people simply ate their meals at home or went visiting to have boiled meat and bread at somebody else’s house.
When people were traveling far from home, they might well have to eat out—but only if they couldn’t wangle an invitation along the way. According to custom, invitations for dinner were expected, along class lines, and were freely given, further precluding the need for stylish places to eat. Taverns, or inns, were mainly necessary on stagecoach routes, such as the one from the South Jersey shore to Philadelphia, where the establishment now known as Ye Olde Centerton Inn in Pittsgrove, New Jersey, opened for business. Such places didn’t stage grand openings; they eased into existence, most of them starting as mere warehouses or inventory stations. The Centerton Inn may have begun serving meals as early as 1706; it is definitely known to have been in business by 1731. Depending on which date is right, it is either the oldest or second-oldest continuously operating dining establishment in America, though it has not offered overnight accommodations in many years.