- 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
Durgin-Park also grew out of a market, the Quincy Market, not far from the wharves in Boston. Nobody even knows its real founding date, the date when somebody first looked down from the second story of the gray warehouse at the market and realized that if food were cooked right there, customers would wait in line for it, shifting from one foot to the other on a nondescript staircase, for, say, one or two hundred years. It was early in the nineteenth century. In about 1873 two local merchants, John Durgin and Eldredge Park, bought the market restaurant and renamed it after themselves. Having done that, they both died, and John Chandler took over. He instituted good, plain Yankee cooking, as described by one of his cooks:“We make our food taste like it’s supposed to be.”
The prevailing curse of the historic restaurant, in America or overseas, is that it is presumed, de facto, to be a tourist place. Durgin-Park is the one where I draw the line. Beyond the specific point, by way of example, that it has succulent chicken potpie for only $4.95 and the freshest seafood in the city, the broader point is that Durgin-Park has been a famous place to go for most of this century, without yet taking advantage of the fact and bending its standards. Because of that, a description of it written for The Craftsman magazine in 1910 is still perfectly accurate:
“The plain tables are laid with clean but unpressed cloths and napkins. The prices are those often described as within the scope of the most modest purse, yet not suspiciously cheap, for the food is of the freshest in the market. . . . To begin with, some fresh butter and a long, low, well-browned piece of cornbread are laid at your plate. Then you brood—perhaps gloat would be a better word—over the possibilities of the bill of fare, trying to decide whether you will have broiled live lobster, swordfish or mackerel. The women of the party decided upon swordfish, the solitary man took lobster. The democratic but efficient server had seemed severe at first, but it proved to be only New England concentration for when she deposited the fish she labeled it with relish: ‘Broiled swordfish. Looks good. He’ll wish he’d taken it.’”
“Imagine,” Will Rogers said of Antoine’s, “a restaurant . . . making a worldwide reputation on just food.”
That was almost ninety years ago. I go to Durgin-Park a few times a month, and the last time I took her advice and ordered the broiled swordfish. He should have taken it.
In any sense of philosophy or science, there is no such thing as the passage of time in the three rooms that house the Durgin-Park restaurant. It really wouldn’t surprise me if it became a tourist place someday.
The taverns, the oyster stands, and the market restaurants just turned up—developing out of some immediate need—but Delmonico was the first in the new epoch in which restaurants were conceived. Peter and John Delmonico thought everything out carefully and set their twelve tables up in full view of the confections and desserts but out of sight of the kitchen in the back. They printed a menu, listing dishes in both English and French. They trained waiters—some of them minor members of the Delmonico family—to care for diners the way that servants tended their masters. Once the place began to draw crowds, the Delmonicos became the first to discover that the successful restaurateur has powers normally vested in gods over life and tables. However, it was the Delmonicos’ policy to let anyone at all into their restaurant—that is to say, they were not old-fashioned snobs, concerned with origin or religion. They were new-style snobs, in step with the egalitarianism of their age, and they’d give a table to anyone who had lots of money.
A generation after Delmonico opened, lonely outpost that it was, New York City had more than five thousand restaurants. Social life was changed just that quickly. Many reasons have been offered for the success and influence of Delmonico and for the fact that the whole nation seemed to wake up hungry on December 13, 1827—hungry and in no mood to cook. The Industrial Revolution, the influx of immigrants, the growth of the cities, the growth of the leisure class: All of them ring true. But Delmonico was the little straw that got a huge boulder creaking forward, because it was a good idea from the start, from the start until the last of the eleven succeeding Delmonico restaurants closed in 1923.