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A Culinary History of New York
By William Grimes
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2009 William Grimes
All rights reserved.
The City Without a Restaurant
In the late 1820s, a Columbia College student by the name of Sam Ward often stepped into a small café in lower Manhattan for a bite to eat. Ward, the son of a prominent banker, would later achieve fame as a big political fixer in Washington and eventually go out in a blaze of scandal. This was no mean feat in the lax moral atmosphere of the Gilded Age, but Ward had great flair.
He also had, even as a young man, a highly developed taste for the finer things in life. Unfortunately, the finer things were in short supply in the New York of his youth, especially when it came to the pleasures of the table. The city, awkwardly poised between the Dutch village it had so recently been and the teeming commercial city it was soon to become, offered little more than the basics to the New Yorker in search of a meal, or the traveler in need of a place to stay and a decent dinner. Visitors and residents alike, their numbers increasing daily, made do with the grim fare served at the city’s boardinghouses, or dined on plain English-style meals at the handful of taverns and chophouses scattered around town. The city that would one day boast many of the finest restaurants in the world was, in the early nineteenth century, a culinary desert.
The old Knickerbocker families, solidly conservative in their manners and their tastes, did just fine. They ate at home. Meals usually were made in the kitchen, but coffeehouses and taverns also functioned as catering shops. When John Battin opened the Eastern Coffee House at Burling Slip and Water Street in 1813, he took out an advertisement in the New York Post that itemized the fare—beefsteaks, mutton chops, broiled chicken, and oysters—and noted pointedly that "families can send servants with dishes to pick up cooked items." This was, in effect, take-out food, a category that would eventually become one of the city’s hallmarks.
The commercial travelers, foreign merchants, and ambitious young men pouring into New York from the hinterlands found the culinary landscape forbidding. The handbooks for visitors that first appeared in print around this time offered scant hope for the hungry. The purportedly comprehensive Blunt’s Stranger’s Guide to the City of New York, published in 1817, listed no restaurants at all, just boardinghouses and hotels: the City Hotel, the Merchants Hotel, and Merchants Hall.
All the more thrilling, then, for a young dog like Sam Ward to discover a little French confectionery and café on William Street, in the heart of the commercial district. It was called Delmonico’s, and it was run by two French-speaking Swiss brothers of that name, John and Peter. "I remember entering the café with something of awe, accompanied by a fellow student from Columbia," Ward recalled in the 1870s. By then he was a legendary bon vivant, and an inspiration for a generation of younger men keen to receive instruction in the arts of fine dining and sophisticated conversation. Delmonico’s, now in its prime, was universally regarded as the finest restaurant in New York, which had also undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving into a restaurant city to rival Paris. But even from this distant vantage, Ward remained enthralled by the humble café that set him on the path of pleasure, a little temple where, he wrote, "the dim religious light soothed the eye, its tranquil atmosphere the ear."
Innocent impressions, recollected in sentimental old age, might have influenced Ward’s description. In his private papers, which include an attempted history of Delmonico’s, he characterized it as "a very primitive little café," an opinion seconded by the New York brahmin Abram C. Dayton. "The little place contained some half dozen pine tables with requisite wooden chairs, to match, and on a board counter covered with white napkins was ranged the limited assortment of pastry," wrote Dayton, the son of a prosperous merchant. "The silverware was old-fashioned two-tine forks and buck-handled knives, the cups and plates solid earthenware." In Delmonico’s early days, the chef himself brought the food to the table.
Primitive it may have been, but from the outset, Delmonico’s struck a distinctive note. Like the spire of Trinity Church, it towered over its surroundings. Service was prompt and deferential, for one thing, a marked departure from the "democratic nonchalance" of chophouses and lunchrooms like Clark and Brown’s on Maiden Lane, George W. Brown’s Auction Hotel on Water Street, or Holt’s Ordinary on Fulton Street, where diners had two choices: a shilling plate (a shilling was worth twelve and a half cents) or a two-shilling set menu known as an ordinary. This was the "meat and two veg" special of its day, a slab of beef or mutton with potatoes and gravy, served up fast with no frills. At its best, the chophouse could be excellent, in the British way, but a steady diet of meat and potatoes, day after day, did have its limitations.
Delmonico’s brought a whiff of Paris into the crude, bustling streets of a city long on ambition but short on amenities. Ward was smitten. "I reveled in the coffee, the chocolate, the bavaroises, the orgeats, and petits gateaux and bonbons," he wrote. The "foreign element," as Dayton described the patrons, only added to the attraction for young New Yorkers in search of atmosphere and romance. The youngbloods made their way to Delmonico’s on Saturday afternoons to indulge in a cuisine that their parents regarded as pretentious and possibly health-damaging. There they mingled with European traders and merchants keen to make a killing in the promising New York market, attracted by "the filets, macaroni, café, chocolate, and petit verre"—the last an aperitif.
Dishes like these came as a revelation. The Bank Coffee House, run by the Irishman William Niblo, ranked at or near the top of the city’s eating houses, also known as refectories, but that was not saying much. Thomas Hamilton, a Scottish visitor, remarked that the fare was "more excellent in point of material, than of cookery or arrangement." The Bank menu sounds enticing enough, though plain, with the inevitable starter of oyster soup followed by a choice of meat or fish: shad, venison, partridge, grouse, "wild-ducks of different varieties, and several other dishes less notable." Unfortunately, Hamilton wrote, "there was no attempt to serve this chaotic entertainment in courses, a fashion, indeed, but little prevalent in the United States. Soup, fish, flesh, and fowl simultaneously garnished the table; and the consequence was, that the greater part of the dishes were cold, before the guests were prepared to attack them." The Delmonico brothers sensed a need, and they addressed it with distinction.
Ward remained a regular at Delmonico’s for the rest of his life, watching with approval as the café prospered, grew into a full-fledged restaurant, and followed the movement of wealth and power farther and farther uptown. By catering to the tastes of Manhattan’s leading businessmen and the social elite, the restaurant quickly became an emblem of New York sophistication and cosmopolitanism. Not just a gastronomic shrine, it functioned as a clearinghouse for anyone aspiring to the upper reaches of society. To have an account at Delmonico’s meant that you had arrived. For nearly a century, it reigned supreme among New York’s restaurants. This meant little in the 1820s but quite a lot as the century wore on and New York evolved into the undisputed dining capital of the United States.
In 1827, when John and Peter Delmonico opened for business, the glory years lay far in the future. Their fledgling venture, originally a wine shop serving foreign traders and merchants, was a risky proposition. It assumed that New York could support a real restaurant run along French lines, with a serious kitchen, a printed menu (in French), and an atmosphere of refinement and leisure. In other words, a restaurant such as might be found in Paris, where diners entered expecting to spend two hours or more savoring fine food served by attentive and knowledgeable waiters.
This was a big assumption. Local tastes ran to beef, beer, oysters, and bread. Moreover, dining was not thought of as a leisurely activity. Americans ate fast—they still do—and New Yorkers ate even faster. Time spent eating was time wasted, distraction from the serious business of making money. It was not at all uncommon for a broker or clerk to wolf down lunch in less than twenty minutes at a downtown eating house, standing up if there were no seats to be had, which was often the case. The dominant dining philosophy was simple: feed as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. At the Auction Hotel, pies were spread out on a counter, already cut into slices, so that customers could grab lunch on the run. Table manners remained a work in progress. A fastidious New Yorker, reminiscing about the city of his youth, recalled with amusement diners who liked to crumble up their apple pie and drop it in a glass of milk.
If dining in New York was a commercial rather than a leisure proposition, it was also, more than in any other city, public rather than private. Early on, as businesses proliferated at the tip of Manhattan Island, residents began moving uptown. Elsewhere, Americans walked home for lunch, but in New York, most laborers lived too far away from their jobs for a home-cooked meal. This created a booming lunch trade for the handful of plain-fare establishments serving crowds of customers at lightning speed and rock-bottom prices. Most closed in the afternoon, their work done for the day.
Clark and Brown’s, at the Franklin Coffee House on Maiden Lane near Liberty Street, was typical of the breed. The proprietors, both English, had made their mark at the Auction Hotel, which pioneered the shilling plate and sold pies and pudding at sixpence, drinks the same. At their chophouse, the men presided over a no-frills dining room with a dingy bar up front and mahogany booths in the rear. John Brown, "a stout, burly, red-faced Englishman," stood at the head of a stairway in the middle of the dining room and carved the meat. One shilling bought a substantial meal of sliced roast beef or beefsteak with plum pudding and a tankard of half-and-half (brewed in New York or Pennsylvania but labeled Burton Stock Ale) or London Dock brandy. With each order came a hefty slice of bread speared on a two-tined fork and a pickled walnut or mushroom catsup for zest.
There was nothing fancy about the food or the service at Clark and Brown’s. Picky diners learned to keep their opinions to themselves. One customer, upset at being served his bread on an archaic horn-handled fork, complained to Clark. The owner, after putting on a show of concern, told him, "Well, Sir, it’s a rule of our place to serve bread on a fork, and them as don’t like our ways of course has the privilege of going elsewhere." A young diner, requesting a silver fork, drew a withering stare from Clark. "Steel forks was good enough for your father, Sir—your father as made the money you are now a-spending," he said. "If you wants silverware you must go somewhere else, for as long as I keeps this place I’ll keep steel forks." And that was that.
Basil Hall, a British naval officer and traveler, took lunch at Clark and Brown’s in the late 1820s and reported to English readers on the joys of dining out, New York style. The dining room was long, narrow, and dark, with wooden booths arranged along a center aisle. As diners took their seats on the pewlike benches, a small boy would poke his head into the booth, taking orders and shouting them over to attendants near the kitchen. Hall, advised that the corned beef was good, ordered accordingly, as did his two companions. "Three beef, eight" rang out—three corned-beef lunches for booth eight. In an instant, a tray supporting three sets of covered dishes made its way down the aisle, held aloft by a jacketless waiter. Each diner was handed a plate with a slab of beef and a second plate heaped with mashed potatoes, along with a knife and, of course, bread on a fork.
"The multiplicity and rapidity of these orders and movements made me giddy," Hall wrote. "Had there been one set to receive and forward the orders, and another to put them into execution, we might have seen better through the confusion; but all hands, little and big together, were screaming out with equal loudness and quickness—‘Half plate beef, 4’—‘One potato, 5’—‘Two apple pie, one plum pudding, 8’ and so on."
New Yorkers loved places like Clark and Brown’s, which endured for decades serving the kind of simple fare—what would now be called comfort food—that lingered forever in the imagination. The playwright Charles Gayler fondly recalled the chicken potpie and rice pudding "with lots of raisins in it" at Holt’s Ordinary in the 1830s. But the old chophouses and ordinaries, selfconsciously anachronistic, outlived their time to become relics and curiosities.
Abram C. Dayton, the merchant’s son, observed the proliferation of the city’s eating houses with an amazed eye. Born in 1818, he attended schools in Germany and Holland and returned to a place he barely recognized. The overgrown village of his youth was now a tumultuous commercial city. Shortly before his death in 1877, he took a fond look back at the city’s Dutch-inflected manners and customs in Last Days of Knickerbocker Life in New York. Since the publication of Washington Irving’s History of New York, ostensibly written by one Diedrich Knickerbocker, "Knickerbocker" had gained currency as a synonym for stolid, determinedly insular, frugal Dutch ways. Dayton, a product of this vanishing culture, wanted to memorialize it before it disappeared entirely.
For Dayton, eating houses were evidence of the foreign presence in the city, and a measure of its transformation from "primitive Gotham" to "metropolitan New York." Knickerbocker taste did not run to public dining, and the cuisine on offer, whether chophouse English or Delmonico’s French, did not entice. English-style rare roast beef, for example, encountered resistance—the Dutch liked their meat well cooked. Clark and Brown’s, Dayton pointed out, was patronized mostly by Yorkshiremen in town to sell manufactured goods. In 1835, when James Thompson moved his confectionery shop to 171 Broadway, a prime location near the main shopping district, he hoped to lure female customers with fetchingly displayed cakes and pastries. To create a welcoming atmosphere, he installed his middle-aged sisters behind the counter. For years the shop struggled. Women would peer in the window, curious, but they stopped short of entering and eating a piece of cake. It simply was not done. Thompson persevered, and eventually prospered, but no thanks to Knickerbocker patronage.
Knickerbocker society was already becoming quaint by the time Dayton returned from Europe. Public business and public appetites defined the new New York, and it is hardly surprising that momentous changes were afoot. The real wonder is why a restaurant like Delmonico’s had taken so long to arrive, especially in a city with no shortage of French émigrés, or foreign businessmen desperate for a good meal.
In fact, Delmonico’s did not arise in a vacuum. It was not the only pastry shop in town, for one thing. François Guerin, just around the corner on Broadway between Pine and Cedar streets, strategically facing the City Hotel, had opened in 1815 and carried on for decades. Like Delmonico’s, Guerin’s served pastries, confectionery, chocolate, and liqueurs. In a bid to capture the female lunch trade, Guerin added a small ladies’ dining room. He was premature. The ladies shopped, or took the air, and then walked to their homes for lunch. But as the residential district moved northward, and the dinner hour grew later, Guerin reaped the rewards, although, unlike the Delmonicos, he had no ambitions beyond quietly amassing a fortune.
The dashing Auguste Louis de Singeron, a French nobleman who fled revolutionary France, chanced into a career as a confectioner when he made some molasses candy for a pupil he was tutoring. The boy’s family was delighted. Singeron, a brisk, energetic man ("his walk," one contemporary wrote, "was that of a man who walks for a wager"), spied an opportunity. He opened a French-style confiserie and pâtisserie on Pine Street and gave New York an eye-popping demonstration of French inventiveness in the culinary arts. It was Singeron who introduced the practice of stamping New Year’s cakes with hearts pierced by arrows, and cupids cavorting among roses. In his shop windows, passersby marveled at gilded gingerbread figures of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, or blancmange in the form of bewigged gentlemen and ladies in court costume. Singeron’s pièce de résistance was a marzipan version of the façade of the Tuileries, which he had helped defend against attack by a revolutionary mob in 1792.
New York’s torrid summers made ice cream a precious commodity. They also created a windfall for European entrepreneurs reared on the pleasures of the outdoor café. John H. Contoit, a Frenchman with an English wife, came to New York in the 1790s and originally set up as a confectioner. In 1799, he opened an "ice house" on Greenwich Street, where he sold ice cream, syrups, punches, and coffee. This proved to be just the thing. A decade later, Contoit opened the New York Garden, a pleasure spot on Broadway between Leonard and Franklin streets in present-day Tribeca, where New Yorkers could take a stroll and then sit down for refreshments. The "garden" was little more than a few trees in a long, narrow plot squeezed between two buildings, but it offered relief from the summer heat. A walkway led between two rows of green-and-white wooden booths attended by black waiters, who raced back and forth, carrying lemonade, pound cake, and ice cream in three flavors: vanilla, strawberry, and lemon. Officially no liquor was served, but a discreet quarter slipped to the waiter would produce a lemon ice spiked with cognac.
Ferdinand Palmo, an Italian, came to New York in 1808, when he was in his early twenties, and, after scrimping and saving, opened Palmo’s Garden, known for its gilded columns multiplied ad infinitum by mirrors lining the walls. (A subsequent owner, a Frenchman by the name of Pinteux, rechristened it the Café des Mille Colonnes.) The café, at Reade Street and Broadway, attracted French and Italian expatriates who gathered to play dominoes, drink chocolate, and nibble at ices, as well as the gay blades of the town, who took in Broadway’s gaudy spectacle just outside the door. As an Italian band played, patrons enjoyed Palmo’s authentic Italian frozen treats, unrivaled, a visitor exclaimed, for "variety, quantity and quality," and "not inferior to those of Tortoni in Paris."Another ice cream parlor, the Café Français, just a few doors down, on Warren Street, served as an unofficial headquarters for the city’s wits—men like the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck and the writer Charles Fenno Hoffman, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine.
Palmo prospered. He became one of the city’s notable figures, but he nourished a larger dream: to establish Italian opera in New York permanently. Accordingly, he sold his restaurant and in 1844 opened Palmo’s New York Opera House in the renovated Arcade Baths, on Chambers Street, just north of City Hall Park. New York, alas, was not ready. Palmo, financially ruined, returned to the stove. It was a long, hard fall. He wound up working, it was said, at Charley Abel’s, a Broadway restaurant whose character may be deduced from one of its advertisements: "Here meet daily the wits, fast men and bloods of the town. It offers all the attractions of ‘the Old House at Home,’ to strangers, while to ‘men about town,’ who are ‘up to a thing or two’—who know the difference between Heidsieck and Newark Cider—Havana Cigars from Down East ‘long nines,’ at a penny a grab—it is the place of any other in the city, for an occasional ‘drop in.’" Fate was unkind.
Ices were not the only way to cool off in the hot New York summers. In 1808, the Lynch and Clark company, which owned the Congress Water Springs at Saratoga Springs, opened a soda-water shop on Wall Street that catered to thirsty brokers. After being taken over by Albert J. Delatour, the little soda-water business became a huge draw, with brokers and bankers forming a line outside that snaked all the way down Wall Street. "It were curious to know how many sixpences and shillings have gone into the exchequer of the landlord [i.e., Delatour] the two days past," the Times wrote during a heat wave in the summer of 1852, "but we have referred the point to our money reporter, and he won’t tell—simply because he is not disposed to have his veracity questioned by stating the enormous number." Glasses were chilled in tubs of ice, then filled with soda by one attendant as another added flavoring from bottled syrups. One by one, customers would enter through a narrow alley from Wall Street and exit on Broad Street, inspired, on hot days, by the hourly temperature readings that Delatour, a scrupulous weather watcher, posted in the window.
A powerful symbiotic relationship developed between theaters and eating houses (the term "restaurant" did not enter into common usage until the middle of the nineteenth century), one that continued throughout the century and persists to this day in the streets around Times Square. The earliest and long the most famous was Edward ("Ned") Windust’s basement restaurant at 11 Park Row, which opened just a few steps from the Park Theater in 1824 or 1825. The theater, built in 1798 by a consortium of wealthy citizens, presented performances by English stock companies and, beginning in the 1820s, classical music. (In its 1825 season it introduced Italian opera, no doubt inspiring Palmo.) Before long, it became the nucleus of a thriving commercial strip, with hotels, coffeehouses, and Windust’s among the attractions.
Windust’s quickly became a rendezvous for actors, writers, and lawyers (and a refuge for Horace Greeley, editor of the Tribune, fleeing from a howling mob during the draft riots of 1863). Theatergoers crowded in, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars dining on the restaurant’s English menu of beefsteaks and chops. In the ensuing decades, theaters all over New York would inevitably acquire satellite restaurants, some of them owned and operated by actors. The audience for theater was enormous. Gathering before performances and spilling onto the streets afterward, playgoers provided the critical mass that allowed hundreds of saloons and restaurants to prosper. Just as important, the presence of actors and other theater folk brought color and excitement to the city’s emerging dining culture. Appetite and celebrity turned out to be a powerful combination.
Excerpted from Appetite City by William Grimes.
Copyright © 2009 by William Grimes.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Excerpted from Appetite City by William Grimes. Copyright © 2009 William Grimes. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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