The crush in front of the Broadway Theater is tremendous—carriages jammed together in the street, the horses whinnying and stamping on the slick cobblestones. The sidewalks are no less chaotic as all the playhouses on 41st Street seem to empty at once, disgorging a sea of top hats and furs whose wearers share a single thought: supper. Magically, we spot an empty hackney clip-clopping its way down Broadway, and in a moment, we’re inside. The driver peers down from his box: ”Where to, gents?” Where else? ”Delmonico’s, of course,” we chorus, and we’re on our way.
This being 1896, the restaurant we’re heading for is located at 26th and Fifth—not the original place opened farther downtown 70 years earlier by a Swiss sea captain named John Delmonico, who, with the help of his brother, Peter, and four nephews, expanded a small pastry shop into what may well have been America’s first true restaurant. Of course, inns, boardinghouses, saloons, and other establishments served food, catering mostly to weary travelers who took potluck with the owner’s family or made do with leftovers if the hour was late. But a ”restaurant” connoted something grander, more on the Parisian model: haute cuisine, fashionable surroundings, attentive service, an extensive wine list. Delmonico’s ”restorator” (as it was sometimes called in America) proved so popular that the family eventually opened what amounted to a chain of places, following the population of a northward-expanding city decade by decade from William Street up to what is now Midtown.
Our carriage deposits us in front of an impressive stone façade, and we elbow our way through the crowd into an entryway of deep carpets and dark wood paneling, redolent of flowers and cigar smoke. Charles Delmonico, one of John’s great-grandnephews, recognizes us—thank God!—and shows us to a table with a commanding view of the enormous room, brilliantly illuminated by gas lamps reflected in huge mirrors. Diamond Jim Brady is at his usual table, with his mistress, Lillian Russell, he in a dinner jacket strained across his enormous gut, she—one of the few women sprinkled among the predominantly male crowd—in an elaborate, multitiered silk and taffeta gown that sets off the whiteness of her plump, bare shoulders and blancmange bosom. The waiter refills Jim’s glass with orange juice: The greatest gourmand of his time doesn’t drink, a pity in a restaurant whose wine list abounds with the finest clarets and sherries. Jim and Lil are toying with a few dozen succulent oysters while deciding what to eat, and the sight makes us ravenous. What takes our fancy? asks Charles. Terrapin soup? Squabs en compote? Filets of bass in Mornay sauce? Calf’s liver sauteed in clarified butter? That sounds capital, we tell him—bring them in just that order, with some of your brussels sprouts simmered in cream and maybe a few potatoes a la duchesse.
That Brady was to die at the age of 56, his stomach swollen to six times its normal size, seems not just comprehensible but inevitable. It’s said that when he sat down at a table, he positioned his belly two inches from the edge and didn’t slow his intake until the two surfaces touched. Though Brady was certainly exceptional in his capacity, it was routine for wealthy New Yorkers of his generation to eat five meals a day, the least of which might have plunged you or me into a coma of satiety. Such appetites were gratified by the startling profusion of raw ingredients available to a city that had itself been wilderness only a century before. Its surrounding forests still teemed with deer, bears, wild boars, wild turkeys, and the ne plus ultra of the well-set table, canvasback duck. More exotic game could be imported as needed: Alessandro Filippini (who labored in Delmonico’s kitchen for a quarter of a century and then became, with Charles’s blessing, the keeper of its flame) mentions in his remarkable book, _The Table _(1889), guinea fowl, ruffed grouse, woodcock and snipe, plover, wild pigeon, and antelope as being among the available delights. The Hudson River in those days was a slithering ribbon of bass, shad, salmon, and half-ton sturgeon. (The latter two were so plentiful that salmon was fed to New York’s servants until they grew sick of it, and sturgeon roe—caviar—was given away in saloons to make people thirsty, the way peanuts are today.) Enormous lobsters arrived daily from Long Island and Maine, and oysters and clams, virtually the staple foods of the upper class, were underfoot in every bay and inlet. Delmonico’s also served, and indeed popularized, vegetables of every kind—artichokes, asparagus, brussels sprouts, eggplants, turnips, tomatoes, and more—grown on the restaurant’s own farm in Brooklyn.
Lest one conclude that Delmonico’s invented New American Cuisine 150 years before the birth of Chez Panisse, however, it’s worth noting that the natural flavors of these abundant foods, instead of being allowed to assert themselves through simple cooking, were invariably smothered by a profusion of unctuous sauces: Hollandaise, bechamel, lyonnaise, Creole, oyster sauce, egg sauce, caper sauce, and just plain butter and cream inundated the endive and potatoes, synergized with the cholesterol of shellfish, disguised the delicacy of baby asparagus, and underscored the fattiness of broiled steak and grilled lamb. Thus were the culinary arts of the Continent wedded to the natural resources of the New World to produce some of the richest cuisine in history.
Nor was such abundance limited to restaurants. In his book, Filippini proposes the following menu for a typical weekday meal in a well-to-do household of the time: a breakfast of cereal, eggs a la turque, sirloin steak with watercress and chateau potatoes, and a baked apple, to be followed by a lunch of sole a la Joinville, chicken hash, macaroni au gratin, and a cream mousse. A meal like this might just enable one to get through the afternoon with only a light snack before sitting down to a dinner of the inevitable oysters, consomme, celery and sardines, Spanish mackerel, venison with colbert sauce, stewed tomatoes, sweetbreads a la Pompadour, roast ducks, lettuce salad with green peas, and a dessert of omelettes soufflees. |
And if this was the normal fare of the bourgeoisie at home, imagine the lengths to which restaurants were prepared to go in order to make dinner out seem a special occasion. Delmonico’s and the other great New York restaurants of the age, notably Sherry’s and Rector’s, were justly famous for their private banquets, which were produced with pyrotechnical theatricality. A dinner given at Delmonico’s for the purpose of impressing Charles Dickens—who, on an earlier visit, had complained of the barbarism of American cuisine—featured more than forty dishes, which succeeded in stupefying the novelist into publishing a retraction of his earlier slanders. As early as 1861, at a celebratory Delmonico’s dinner, Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, sent and received the first cablegrams to Europe between the soup and the sorbet—a technical and stylistic achievement that might be likened to our making the first contact with extraterrestrials from a good table at Le Cirque 2000. Del’s (as its habitues called it) also hosted the famous Luckemeyer affair, for which the center of the dining table was transformed into an artificial pond complete with live swans. And Sherry’s was the scene of the 1903 Horse Dinner for the New York Riding Club, at which each of the 30 guests was served an elaborate meal while perched on his own horse, the animals having been hoisted with great ingenuity and expense into the straw-covered upstairs dining room.
This was the Age of Excess, in which consumption that was without conspicuousness seemed without point. Corpulence was a positive virtue, at least among men, during the palmy days of the late 19th century; eating until one was ready to burst had less to do with hunger, as we understand the term, than with more complex appetites. Power and material wealth were literally incarnated in the meats and birds and fishes that were piled high on the bone-china plates gracing the table at each meal, and at last incorporated into one’s ever-expanding self. In the extremes of its architecture, its fashions, and, above all, the style and substance of its eating, New York provided writers like Edith Wharton and Henry James with endless material for satire. Indeed, Wharton’s novel _The Age of Innocence _presents Delmonico’s as an attractive alternative to the elaborate dullness of Establishment society: While the Lovell Mingotts and the van der Luydens give their endless boring dinners at home, replete with footmen and menus on gilt-edged cards, the dashing man-about-town Charles Beaufort seeks to impress cosmopolitan Countess Ellen by inviting her instead to hobnob with opera singers at ”the little oyster supper I’d planned for you at Delmonico’s next Sunday, with Campanini and Scalchi and a lot of jolly people”. Indeed, there’s hardly a work of fiction in print that dares depict New York between the Civil and First World Wars without the obligatory dinner at Delmonico’s; Caleb Carr, E. L. Doctorow, and many others celebrate, or at least record, its unique popularity and central importance.
Admittedly, Delmonico’s was not the only restaurant of its ilk. But Sherry’s and Rector’s (sometimes derided as a ”lobster palace”) appealed to a racier clientele: They were the places where men of fashion brought chorus girls with whom they might dally in a private dining room. It was Sherry’s to which the cops were summoned one night to find Little Egypt dancing on the tables, wearing mesh stockings and nothing else. By contrast, Del’s was more like a club, more like the Knickerbocker or the Union, except that the snobbishness and exclusivity of the traditional men’s clubs gave way to a kind of charming egalitarianism not unlike the sort found during the 1930s in cafe society. Artists, musicians, and actors mingled with sportsmen, judges, financiers, doctors, and trust-fund babies at Delmonico’s, making it, in the words of one observer, ”the trysting place of men”—though the phrase now suggests something other than what was intended.
It’s late, and we’re on the sidewalk again—full-bellied, tipsy, and poorer by several dollars a man. Yet we all think it was worth the exorbitant cost, both for the dinner and for the sense of social occasion, almost of history. Delmonico’s, after all, has already been around for the better part of a century, and, in an ever-changing world, it’s comforting to believe that New Yorkers surely will always have Delmonico’s to cheer their hearts and fill their stomachs.
Or will they? Perhaps the one thing that couldn’t have been predicted before the 20th century shouldered its way onto the stage was the blow that felled Delmonico’s: Prohibition. A fine restaurant without a wine list, after all, is almost an oxymoron. Haute cuisine was not a priority in the Roaring Twenties, when a dingy basement that served club sandwiches and homemade gin would do just fine. Fashionable restaurants like ’21’ started as speakeasies, and the shift in manners and morals that they heralded after the Volstead Act became law doomed the grand and ornate temples of gastronomy, including Delmonico’s, which finally succumbed in 1923. When, after the Second World War, New Yorkers again cared to sample the delights of Continental fare, Le Pavillon, La Cote Basque, and La Grenouille rose to the occasion, but the line of succession that had sustained Delmonico’s was severed.
In ensuing years there were attempts to revive Del’s, but none endured. However, yet another incarnation has recently opened. True to the restaurant’s history of following power and wealth wherever it appeared, this newest venture is near Wall Street, in the same building (now stunningly renovated inside) where Delmonico’s first rose to prominence. These days, its customers are newly affluent young brokers and bond traders who are moving into lofts and condos in the area, bringing with them a taste for fine wine, rare meat, and expensive cigars. Yet the new Delmonico’s is but a faded copy of the brilliant original. Its owners have no ties to the historic restaurateurs, and though the menu lists a few classic Delmonico’s recipes—lobster Newburg, potatoes gratin—it looks positively minimalist compared to the sumptuousness of the old cartes. You won’t find elaborate banquets here, nor truffles by the handful, nor a trace of the supreme satisfaction that once glowed on the faces of guests. Delmonico’s today is merely another decent restaurant in a city that abounds with them. The real Del’s, the true Del’s, remains a legend.