Thursday, August 9, 2012

22. Restaurants of the Storied Past: Delmonico's

Delmonico's by New York Big Apple Images
                                                                          © Matthew X. Kiernan

Damask draperies framing tall windows, a soft glow from discreet gas lights in chandeliers, deep-pile carpets muffling the footsteps of waiters who never hurried but were always deftly present when needed, immaculate tablecloths with polished silver and sparkling stemware, a vase of fresh flowers on every table, the murmur of polite conversation as course followed course with impeccable logic, balance, and order: everything in this shrine of elegance, this sanctum of decorum, conspired to create a contagion of gentility where loud talk and unseemly behavior were unthinkable.  Such was Delmonico's at Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, New York's most sumptuous restaurant in the 1860s.  There were several Delmonico's at the time, but this was the most elegant, the most sought-after, where lucky speculators and eminent bankers, New and Old Money heirs, visiting statesmen and celebrities, and the belles of the day (always with an escort) -- in short, anyone who wanted to be counted among the moneyed elite of the nation -- came to dine.

Let us imagine that a (figuratively speaking) poor fledgling millionaire -- perhaps a gold or oil speculator, or a railroad promoter, or a recipient of lucrative government contracts to furnish boots or bayonets, or blankets of the best shoddy wool, to the military -- has been ushered in and duly seated with his wife or colleagues.  Of course he would open the menu that a diligent waiter handed him, a menu that, on special occasions, might be printed in gold on silk, and mounted on satin enclosed in a Russian leather folder.  And what did he then encounter?  Here is a Delmonico's menu from 1862:



Crème de volaille à la Rachel

Variés         Hors d’Oeuvres          Variés

Timbales à la Monglas


Truites de Long Island       Filet de boeuf à l’Andalouse


Côtelette de pigeon à la Noaille
Filets de volaille à l’Impériale
Mayonnaise de homard à la ravigotte


Cardinale au vin du Rhin


Canvas-back duck        Bécasses bardées


Asperges          Petits pois


Millefeuilles Pompadour        Croquenbouche d’oranges


What was he to make of these mysterious entries?  He might guess "Truites de Long Island" (Long Island trout), but most of the items would have baffled him, just as they baffle me, a onetime French major.  So he could either order canvas-back duck, the one item in English on the menu (and a giveaway), or point to some dish that seemed enticing, or at least sufferable, to one unschooled in the language and cooking of the French.  Which, in the second case, guaranteed a surprise when the dish was served.  But the absence of prices wouldn't have put him off, since no one on a tight budget dined at Delmonico's.

The Delmonico enterprise began when two brothers, John and Peter, came to New York from the Ticino, an Italian-speaking canton in Switzerland, and in 1827 opened a small pastry shop in William Street whose superb Swiss chocolate soon became the talk of the town.  When this early enterprise was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1835, they opened a "restaurant français" in Broad Street the following year, introducing New Yorkers to the concept and the name "restaurant," both of which had originated in post-revolutionary France.  Before, New Yorkers had known coffee houses, boarding houses, and inns, but the idea of dining out for pleasure was relatively new.  The Delmonico restaurant changed dining in America by seating each party of guests at its own table and providing them with a tablecloth and a printed menu.  Then, in 1837, the brothers acquired another property at
2 South William Street and built a sumptuous new restaurant whose entrance featured marble pillars said to have come from the doorway of a villa in Pompeii.  Located near the financial district, it was patronized by lawyers, bankers, and merchants.

Nineteenth-century New York experienced such dynamic growth that its population doubled every sixteen years.  Inevitably, the city had to expand, and since Manhattan is a narrow cigar-shaped island, it could only expand uptown, or to the north.  When genteel citizens saw the first sign of
decay in their neighborhood -- perhaps a widow hard-pressed for funds taking in tenants whom
she referred to as her "guests," or worse still, the dreaded appearance of a dentist's office -- they abandoned the neighborhood to commerce and the lower orders and fled northward to safer, more exclusive districts until, some years later, the same pressures forced them to continue their flight to the north.  Seeking a refined patronage, the Delmonicos joined this trek uptown, establishing a new restaurant at Broadway and Chambers Street in 1846, and then, in 1862, the lavish restaurant at Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street.  In time, the migration northward would resume.

Presiding over these operations was Lorenzo Delmonico, a nephew of the founders, under whose rule the restaurants achieved international renown.  Diligent and energetic, he went daily at 4 a.m. to the Washington and Fulton markets to pick out the best meat, fish, fowl, and produce, returning to the Chambers Street restaurant by 8 a.m. in a cab, followed by other cabs burdened with his purchases.  He would then return home and go to bed, returning in the evening to have supper, chat with friends,  bond with his customers, and smoke his beloved thick black cigars.  The bonding stretched even to warning a customer against a risky speculation; grateful for having avoided a thirty thousand dollar loss, the customer gave Lorenzo a handsomely mounted cane.

Lorenzo's nephew Charles was put in charge of the Fourteenth Street restaurant at the age of twenty-two and proved adept in running it.  Imposing strict rules of decorum, he decreed that no ladies would be served unless accompanied by a male escort, and that any lady and gentleman dining together in an upstairs private room must keep the door open at all times.  Under his tutelage no patron was to be confronted with a bill, since this would be grossly insulting; patrons were expected to ask for it -- a policy that proved remarkably successful.  A guest guilty of untoward behavior or failure to pay an overdue bill was blacklisted; when he came to dine, he would be greeted with the usual smiles and deference, but somehow his order would never manage to reach the kitchen.  In time the offender would realize his situation and depart, but it didn't end there.  Once word got out, his having been banished from those hallowed precincts brought the exile tons of opprobrium.

Flocking to these restaurants were the crème of the crème, though some of them might in time prove  curdled.  Boss Tweed and his crony Judge Barnard dined there -- the first to be later jailed for corruption, and the second impeached.  Lunching there daily was dapper Mayor Oakey Hall, who might appear in an embroidered waistcoat under a green frock coat with pure gold coins for buttons, and a green velvet collar and lapels.  Other patrons included the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher (later to be accused of adultery), assorted Astors and Vanderbilts, and politicians, generals, and admirals.  During the Civil War President Lincoln himself patronized the Fourteenth Street establishment, staying in one of the bachelor apartments on the top floor when he came for secret consultations with various political and military figures.  And when, in 1868, civic notables wanted to hold a gala dinner to honor Charles Dickens, they of course chose the Fourteenth Street Delmonico's.  But no extravagant dinner of the time could match the 1873 feast that Edward Luckmeyer, a wealthy importer, gave for seventy-five guests.  In the center of a huge oval table was an artificial lake with exotic plants, waterfalls, glades and hillocks, and several swans gliding serenely on the water inside
a mesh of gold wire from Tiffany's.  The grandiose occasion was marred only when a cygnine altercation arose; fortunately, an embankment of flowers shielded the guests from the resulting splashes.  The "Swan Dinner" was long remembered and helps explain why we call that period the Gilded Age.

Rarely, the Delmonico decorum was challenged.  When Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin, two fervent suffragists who had already shocked the city by becoming the first female brokers on Wall Street, tried to obtain a table without a male escort, they were of course refused.  Flouncing down to the street, they hailed a hackney cab, hired the driver, and returned with their rumpled escort to claim a table and triumphantly order tomato soup for three.  "Talk of women's rights is moonshine," Victoria told the press.  "Women have every right -- all they need do is seize them.  That's what we do daily!"  (A colorful twosome.  Hmm...  Maybe they rate a post of their own.)

Baked Alaska                                             Aaron Gustafson
Eggs Benedict dusted with paprika               The Bitten Word

Presiding for years over the Fourteenth Street kitchen, and then over later Delmonico restaurants, was the famous French chef Charles Ranhofer, who ruled with an iron hand but whose results were memorable.  It was he who, wanting to celebrate the country's purchase of Alaska in 1867, lined ice cream with slices of sponge cake, topped it with meringue, and baked the concoction briefly, thus creating Baked Alaska.

Certainly Chef Ranhofer was endlessly inventive.  When a Mrs. Benedict, a regular patron who was bored with the current fare, urged him to create something new for lunch, he combined toasted English muffins with a thin slice of ham, poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, and a truffle on top, and so created Eggs Benedict, which he named for her.  Other dishes believed to have originated at this or another Delmonico's include Lobster Newburg, Manhattan Clam Chowder, Oysters Rockefeller, and possibly Chicken à la King.

As the city continued to spread north, Delmonico's followed, establishing restaurants at Madison Square and then at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street.  Every president from James Monroe through Franklin D. Roosevelt dined at a Delmonico restaurant, though not necessarily during their presidential term.  Among notable earlier patrons were the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and Prince Louis Napoleon, the future Emperor Napoleon III of France.  Renowned diners of the Gilded Age included Diamond Jim Brady and Lilian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt (for whom a dish was named), Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde, and, while still Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.  When the last restaurant closed in 1923, the Delmonico dynasty could take pride in having hosted the elite of at least two continents, not to mention creating a host of new dishes and educating generations of Americans in the graces of genteel dining. 

About the photo:  The photo at the beginning of this post shows the corner entrance of today's Delmonico's at the intersection of Beaver and South William Streets, a steakhouse whose owners are in no way related to the Delmonico family but who claim the Delmonico name and heritage, offering certain dishes featured in the earlier restaurants, and proclaiming in their menu and on their website "Since 1837."  But for me, this last is a bit of a stretch.  The steakhouse does indeed occupy the site
of the 1837 restaurant, but the current structure is in essence the reconstructed Delmonico's of 1891, which incorporated several features from the 1837 restaurant: the two "Pompeiian" columns flanking the doorway, and perhaps the marble cornice above the door as well.  When the family closed their last restaurant in 1923, they tried to retain control of the name "Delmonico's," but a subsequent court ruling determined that the name was now in the public domain and so could be used by anyone.  Between then and now various commercial enterprises have occupied the site, including the steakhouse of today.  The very designation "steakhouse" is really too basic, too American, to convey the refined Continental atmosphere of the Delmonico's of yore.  But if that steakhouse relates more to 1891 than 1837, the entrance seen in the photo does convey the formal elegance, both architectural and culinary, that distinguished the Delmonico restaurants, in consequence of which the building now has Landmark status.  And if later restaurateurs covet the name and prestige of Delmonico's, it is a tribute to that family dynasty and its restaurants.

In closing, I want to provide a glimpse of Lorenzo Delmonico's city.  Here, in a print of 1865, is a panoramic bird's-eye view of New York.

The ships of course are not in scale, being much too big, but their presence in numbers reminds us that nineteenth-century New York was the largest port in the hemisphere, where both sailing vessels and smoke-belching steamboats mingled, and even the old Hudson River sloops bringing produce and bricks and dairy products to the city from the nearby counties.  Broadway, the city's main artery, can be seen stretching north from the Battery, a street where all kinds of people -- no matter what their wealth or status or occupation, or the lack of these -- were likely to rub shins, and a thoroughfare so jammed with rushing traffic that you risked your life trying to cross during business hours, unless aided by a patrolman.  (There were, of course, no stop signs or red lights.)  Church spires are the tallest structures in this age before skyscrapers, though by the 1870s visitors would marvel at buildings ten and twelve stories high, made possible by what had first appeared in 1859 as a vertical railroad, and in time came to be known as an elevator.  In the distance one can make out City Hall and its park, and beyond that (with effort) Union Square, and beyond that in the far, far distance (if one squints), the green reaches of the new Central Park.  A bustling, thriving, growing city, and a mecca for hustlers and entrepreneurs, for the bold and the ambitious, and for those with new ideas, especially ideas that might make money: in short, for the Delmonicos.

Thought for the day:  Those whom no pterodactyls haunt are quiet little prunes.

                                                                      © 2012  Clifford Browder

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