- 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
Delmonico, Sherry’s, Louis Martin, Bustanoby’s, and a few others were the “lobster palaces” that became central to New York’s social life in the Gilded Age. Laden with marble and velvet, potted palms, and string orchestras, they were gorgeous and always tasteful. Unfortunately they also spawned Lobster Palace Society, as it was known, a convivial part of the upper class that prided itself on doing idiotic things. C. K. G. Billings gave a banquet at Sherry’s in 1900 at which the guests sat at their places on Thor- oughbred horses, sipping champagne from the saddlebags through long straws. Fun is fun, but that’s an insult to the horses, not to say to the champagne, if it was any good. And it surely was: On the main floors of the lobster palaces, dining became just another word for showing off, and the reputations of the great restaurants have been connected ever since with pathetic excess, by way of social climbing. One of the few restaurants to survive from the grand day of Delmonico is Antoine’s, in New Orleans, which opened in 1840. Antoine’s was no lobster palace, though; its decor and its atmosphere have always been mellow. It is the cooking, like that of Delmonico, that has always been surpassing. “Imagine,” Will Rogers said of Antoine’s, “a restaurant existing and making a world-wide reputation on just food.” I know how great Antoine’s is, because I have been there only once. I have been there only once almost twenty years ago, and I remember every aspect in detail. They just didn’t serve food like that where I came from. The impression that remains to this day is that they don’t serve food quite like Antoine’s anywhere: a blend of French and Creole, of course, and myriad other regional influences. Mainly it is precocity, though, even at the age of 157: Antoine’s likes to do things its own way, including, for example, its invention of the hollow French fry, or “les pommes de terre soufflées.”
The first great restaurants were French, like Antoine’s and Delmonico. The next wave of restaurants, in cities at least, were ethnic, and the first to hold sway was one rarely seen anymore, the English restaurant. The genre arose in reaction to the very sociability of the prevailing French restaurants, as a writer named Richard Duffy observed for a magazine in 1909, praising English restaurants for “The absence of chattering women, of a clattering orchestra, or garish lights and decorations. . . . Peace and plenty are here.”
“On the table,” he wrote (with a certain resignation that sounds remarkably like relief), “are the half-dozen bottles of condiments which English cooking requires, because their cooks lack imagination and inventiveness.”
Keens Steakhouse—started in 1885 as Keen’s English Chop House—was so ultra-Anglophilic that even the Londoner’s New York thought it a bit aggressive, charging it with “anxious emulation.” Keen’s (as it was soon renamed, for the first owner) grew out of a part of the Lambs, an actors’ club in Manhattan. It had no chattering women (or any women), no orchestra, and subdued lights. For decorations, there were pictures of actors and there were long-stemmed pipes. The idea behind the pipes was that a customer could buy one for a quarter and leave it at the restaurant for his exclusive use. There are seventy-two thousand of them now, many thousands of which line the ceiling in a pleasing way.
One night in 1901 the English actress Lillie Langtry decided she wanted a mutton chop. She didn’t want companionship, she just wanted a muttonchop, and for it she took herself to Keen’s, where she was duly denied her chop or even a table, on the ground that a woman couldn’t dine there without a male escort. Langtry sued and won, because Keen’s had not offered her any seat at all. “Ladies are in Luck!” the restaurant graciously conceded after the verdict. “They can dine at Keen’s.” At most other high-class places of the day, one dining room would be for males only, one would be for females accompanied by a male, and one, perhaps, would allow females even without a male escort.
This system wasn’t merely based on chauvinism or misogyny. As an invention the restaurant proliferated very quickly in the mid-nineteenth century, and it represented dangerous new territory to a society wherein malefemale relations had once been fairly well controlled. Just as millionaires had abused their new toy—practically drowning it in bubbly—people with a mind for intrigue lost no time in exploring its possibilities in their own way. In 1872 a reporter named James McCabe visited restaurants that admitted unescorted men and women; what he found would surprise almost no one of today and almost everyone of 1872. “A quiet but close observer,” he wrote, “will frequently see a nod, or a smile, or a meaning glance pass between the most respectable looking persons of opposite sexes, who are seemingly strangers to each other, and will sometimes see a note slyly sent by a waiter, or dropped adroitly in the hand of the woman as the man passes out, while her face wears the demurest and most rigidly virtuous expression. Such women frequent some of the best known up-town establishments to so great an extent that a lady entering one of them is apt to be insulted in this way by the male habitués of the place. These wretches hold all women to be alike, and act upon this belief.” Many more rules about such behavior have collected since the days of the first restaurants, obviating the segregation; it was a makeshift solution, indefensible, all things considered. But it proved what a powerful thing was the restaurant.