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July 2024
13min read

The restaurant that changed the way we dine—

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.”

The origins of this civilizing agency were humble enough. In the early 1800’s, a Swiss-born ship’s captain named Giovanni Del-Monico grew tired of the life of a merchant seaman in the West Indies trade and decided to go into business in New York. Giovanni knew wines, and his brother, Pietro, a confectioner from Berne, knew baking. In 1827 they opened a small shop on Williams Street in the Battery to sell wine by the bottle, along with counter service offering freshly brewed coffee, chocolates, and French pastries. The sign out front read DELMONICO'S. One family legend has it that the brothers decided it was cheaper to change their names than it was to have the sign repainted. In any event, Delmonico’s was established, and New York got its first glimpse of the style that was to mark this extraordinary culinary house for almost a century. The establishment was scrupulously clean, something of a rarity for public places in the nineteenth century. Delmonico’s used only the best and freshest of ingredients, and Europeans living in New York found its sweets and pastries were the closest thing in town to what they had eaten on the Continent. As an added attraction Delmonico’s featured the first lady cashier in the city.

The little shop proved to be a gold mine, and the brothers ploughed their profits back into the business until, in 1831, they were able to lease the adjoining building and open a proper “Restaurant Français,” offering a hot lunch. Nestled in the heart of New York’s commercial district, Delmonico’s brought about a fundamental change in the American business scene. According to Lately Thomas, a biographer of the Delmonico family, “businessmen began to think little of taking an hour from their preoccupations to relish an appetizing luncheon, immaculately presented. A delicate dish of veal, it was learned, might even be an aid when broaching a subject of equal delicacy to a business associate.”

Although Delmonico’s specialized in serving the finest in local produce, and even had its own farm in Brooklyn to ensure a continuous supply of fresh vegetables, it remained steadfastly European. Perhaps its most significant importation was the arrival, in 1831, of young Lorenzo Delmonico, a nephew of the original owners. Only nineteen, and with no previous experience, young Lorenzo became the beau ideal of restaurateurs. He took over the active directorship of Delmonico’s in 1842 and was responsible for its eventual ascendancy as the greatest restaurant America had ever produced. Lorenzo was a man of the most precise habits. Every morning of his working life he arrived at the Fulton and Washington markets at 4:00 select personally the meats, game, fish, and fowl for the evening meal. Smoking one of the thirty licorice-black Havana cigars that he would consume during the day, he was at the restaurant by 8:00 A.M., and then went home for a nap. He returned to supervise dinner and left again on the dot of midnight.

In 1862 Delmonico’s secured the services of Charles Ranhofer as principal chef. An ample man with a white mustache, Ranhofer ruled over the kitchens at Delmonico’s with autocracy. It was said that Ranhofer was New York’s first chef and there was no second. Under his direction, Delmonico’s prepared mountains of foods every day. A typical menu would run to a dozen pages, offering hundreds of dishes. And if it wasn’t on the menu, the customer need only ask and it would be prepared. Several of Delmonico’s most famous contributions to the American dining scene came about as a result of suggestions from customers. The Wall Street scion Foxhall Keene was partial to chicken in a cream sauce, and was honored with a dish we now know as chicken à la king. Ben Wenburg had an idea for the preparation of lobster with cream and sherry. For a while this creation was known as Lobster à la Wenburg. Some time later, however, Wenburg committed the unpardonable sin of engaging in a public brawl at Delmonico’s, and his name was banished from the menu. The dish reappeared as lobster Newburg.

With Ranhofer in the kitchen and Lorenzo in the front, Delmonico’s prospered mightily. The service was peerless. As one observer noted, “the dishes succeed each other with a fidelity and beauty like the well composed tones of a painting or a symphony. It was a brilliant overture to the noble opera henceforth to be played....”

“No Delmonico has ever thought himself above his business,” remarked an old customer recalling the long and glorious reign of the restaurant, “and for that reason no gentleman has ever thought himself above the Delmonicos.” Generations of New Yorkers, to whom the expression “dinner at Del’s” was the watchword of elegance, were fanatically loyal to the restaurant. That fidelity paid handsome dividends when Lorenzo, whose astuteness apparently was limited to the restaurant business, invested in drilling for oil in Brooklyn. In 1851 the enterprise collapsed and forced him into bankruptcy.

To make good his debts, he was forced to put Delmonico’s up for auction. Aghast at the thought of such a venerable institution changing hands, the New York financial community held firm, and not a single bid was received. Instead, Lorenzo’s customers loaned him the money to keep going until the restaurant could repay his losses.

Lorenzo had unbounded faith in the future of New York City and bet heavily on its continuing prosperity. As Manhattan grew northward, he would build a new restaurant farther uptown than the previous one. Delmonico’s became in effect, the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company of the newly rich. Its wealthy patrons knew that after an exhausting day of stock manipulation, there would be a plate of canvasback duck and magnums of oeil de perdrix champagne waiting for them at Delmonico’s.

In time, Delmonico’s became the natural habitat of the celebrity. Every President from Monroe to Franklin Delano Roosevelt dined there. On a less exalted political level, Boss Tweed and his henchmen spent many a pleasant evening plundering New York City in one of Delmonico’s private dining rooms. Lillian Russell was a habitué and often put away more food than her regular escort, Diamond Jim Brady. On the day the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, came to New York in 1850, she was wined and dined at Delmonico’s. In 1871 the New York Yacht Club gave Grand Duke Alexis a dinner at Del’s that caused the New York Herald to remark that “for $5,000, Delmonico can make fifty people gastronomically quite comfortable.” Oscar Wilde paused at the customs office only long enough to declare his genius, before dashing straight for the men’s bar.

The heart of Delmonico’s trade, however, was not so much visiting peerage or international celebrities but those New Yorkers who were going about the difficult and exacting business of being rich. A social history of the upper classes in New York during the last quarter of the nineteenth century could have been compiled without leaving the reservation desk of Delmonico’s Fourteenth Street restaurant. In 1870 Archibald Gracie King, an important New York banker, broke with tradition to become the first man in New York society to give a private ball under other than his own roof—a dinner dance for more than eight hundred guests to commemorate the debut of his eldest daughter. The party was a smash, and thereafter social arbiters deemed it fashionable to give such affairs outside the home and let someone else clean up the dishes.

The first man to really take advantage of this new social turn of events was that curious symbol of old-line society, Ward McAllister, who once noted, “the great secret of life is to be contented with the position to which it has pleased God to call you.” God had not been pleased to call McAllister to a particularly high position, but He had done extremely well by McAllister’s wife, which is the next best thing. Armed with her money, and the overbearing mien of the headwaiter he so resembled, McAllister set about supervising the social order of things in New York, and pursuing perhaps his greatest passion, the sponsorship of elegant parties. His masterwork was the series of dinner dances known as the Patriarch Balls, which grew from his determination to recreate in New York the kind of “brilliant assemblage of people” known at Almack’s in London, where the air was so rarefied it was difficult for a newcomer to get the time of day until the Duke of Wellington said hello to him. In 1872 McAllister organized a twenty-five-man executive committee to be responsible for the dances which were to be held at Delmonico’s. Among the leaders of the committee were some of the oldest names in New York, including John Jacob Astor, William Astor, William Schermerhorn, and Alex Van Rensselaer. Together they decreed that each of the twenty-five patriarchs had the right to invite four ladies and five gentlemen, including themselves and their families. Hewing to the concept that it takes “four generations to make a gentleman,” McAllister decreed that “Patriarchs were chosen solely for their fitness,” not just for money, and that the success of the balls “lay in making them select … in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation … anyone repeatedly invited had a secure social position.” The competition for the prized invitations was fierce. McAllister found himself continually being approached by women saying, “Kind sir, I have a daughter…”

“My dear madam,” McAllister would reply, “say no more. You have my deepest sympathy,” and then retreat to the safety of the men’s lounge.

The Patriarch Balls of the 1872–73 season were among the most elegant the city had ever seen, but members of a new social order were already knocking on the bronze doors of Delmonico’s, and there was no way to keep them out.

As the socialite Mrs. Helen Van Rensselaer noted, the 1870’s was a “period of great economic expansion. People were rushing to New York to make their fortunes … a wealthy, extravagant, spectacular group of no orderly social growth.” On December 26, 1874, a group of the city’s most prominent bachelors gave a dinner dance at Delmonico’s, inviting, Mrs. Van Rensselaer said, “numerous men and women heretofore not considered among the social elect.” Known as the Bouncer’s Ball, it served, “unofficial but positive notice upon the aristocratic, exclusive set that … social prominence … was to be expressed henceforth in terms of millions rather than of lineage.”

The dinner party had risen to a minor art form in America during the nineteenth century, and these new millionaires were more than happy to pay the steep tariff a really elaborate affair demanded. And for more than fifty years Delmonico’s was famous for mounting the most magnificent dinner parties in the city.

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.”

And so, in April, 1921, Delmonico’s, which for almost a century had symbolized the finest and most refined elements in American society, had to undergo the ignominy of a raid. A pair of Prohibition agents attended a thé dansant and, when they were served alcohol, they promptly blew the whistle and packed the waiter as well as the floor manager off to the station house. Under Edward L. C. Robins, the last manager of Delmonico’s, the restaurant tried to struggle along within the law. But in 1923 Delmonico’s was sued for $18,750 in nonpayment of rent. Eventually, the bill grew to include back taxes and other expenses totalling more than $180,000. On May 21, 1923, Delmonico’s was shuttered and closed.

The remaining assets were divided up between Delmonico’s heirs and creditors. Chappell was there for the final sale of the restaurant’s appointments and watched with horror “hawk-nosed professional buyers stalking among the loaded tables, tapping the wine glasses with knowing fingers or feeling a tablecloth and figuring to a nicety how many napkins they could get out of it.”

There were periodic attempts to revive the House of Delmonico under different guises, and at different locations in New York, but none of them was successful. After ninety-six years, the last ounce of caviar had been consumed, the last glass of champagne had been drunk, and the last dance had been danced.

The party was over. But, as the society columns of the period used to say, “a good time was had by all.”

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