If America’s is the story of those who journeyed from Europe to tame the wild and savage frontiers of its vast expanses, then New York is the gateway in that story. It is the breach point through which flowed thousands upon thousands of soon-to-be Americans - more than 12 million European immigrants passed through Ellis Island (New York’s iconic immigration processing centre) between 1892 and 1954 alone.
Doors are defined by those that pass through them and New York is no exception - since the first waves of mass immigration in the early 1800s, it has been the most vibrant, diverse, dynamic and culturally alive metropolis on Earth.
The story of Delmonico’s can be seen as the story of America’s cultural growth viewed through that most elemental and revealing of cultural lenses - food. It is the story of how the art of cuisine and therefore dining came knocking on America’s front door and, on arrival, relegated cooking and eating to mere corporeal processes.
It is a truly remarkable story, featuring an almost overwhelming list of groundbreaking, defining and redefining moments in the history of how America eats, drinks and, therefore, lives. Delomonico’s was the first establishment in America where guests were seated at their own personal tables, which were adorned with tablecloths for the first time, and again for the first time given a printed menu from which they could choose dishes the kitchen would prepare for them. Delmonico’s lasting influence on society lifestyles is not to be underestimated either, being the host of America’s first ever debutante ball outside of a private home.
When Giovanni Del-Monico (a successful sea captain from Switzerland) retired in 1824 and settled in New York, America’s eating habits and dining options were confined almost exclusively to the purely functional.
Aside from eating in their homes, Americans only choices were to eat in establishments where the dining room was nothing more than a room added onto a house, tavern, inn, or hotel. The customer ate what the host or proprietor chose to serve that day at set times, and were charged a flat rate, irrespective of how much or little they ate. In other words one either ate at home or paid for the dubious pleasure of eating in someone else’s.
A similarly limited and limiting concept of nightlife also held sway at this time, with social drinking confined again to the home, or, in cities like New York, cafés that were very similar in style to the taverns found all over the country.
Giovanni became known as John Delmonico, and brought his brother Peter (or Pietro as he was known in Berne, where he had run a successful candy shop) over from Switzerland and together they opened a small café and pastry shop at 23 William Street in 1827. From these most humble of circumstances, in what is now the Financial District in Manhattan, their extravagant revolution began.
In what was to become the guiding principal of all the glittering achievements of the Delmonico name, the brothers brought what they knew from Europe to New York. The café at William Street had a sense of identifiable French sophistication and - serving coffee, bonbons, orgeats, bavaroises, wines, liquors and ices - soon attracted a loyal clientele from the sizeable population of émigré businessmen and merchants in the area.
As their fortunes rose, the brothers expanded into the adjacent property. Established in 1830, the restaurant at 25 William Street became the first restaurant ever opened in the United States, and was modeled entirely on the restaurants the brothers had seen both in France and elsewhere in Europe.
Everything about the Delmonico´s experience was new or unknown to native New Yorkers, who were treated like diners, consumers even, for the first time. Polite and welcoming staff offered a bill of fare, or carte in French, detailing the list of individual dishes - featuring exquisite French sauces and using exotic ingredients, such as aubergine, endive and artichoke. The dishes were prepared by French chefs, who the brothers plucked from the throngs of émigrés arriving in New York daily.
For the first time, customers could choose what they would eat and do so according to both their appetite and their pocket book. Cost was, however, never the criteria on which the Delmonico’s name traded; their interest was in quality and as profits rose, fine imported wine such as Chateau Margaux and champagne were offered to the ever-expanding clientele.
With Delmonico & Brother, Restaurant Francais, John and Peter lit the fuse of an explosion of culinary, cultural and economic success whose reverberations would be felt across their adopted homeland. As stories of Delmonico & Brother’s incredible success spread, so too did imitation restaurants; first on a city and then on a statewide level. The brothers were joined in 1831 by their nephew Lorenzo, who would eventually go on to guide the business through its most phenomenal period of growth.
Constructed to their exacting specifications at one of those iconic New York tri-cornered locations, and in fact to this day a prominent local architectural landmark at the apex of the streets Beaver, William and South William, Delmonico’s Restaurant was no dining room - it was a palace. Completed in 1837, it boasted two expansive dining salons that took up a floor each, with the kitchen located on the third, and a cellar of 16,000 bottles of fine French wine. Known affectionately by New Yorkers as The Citadel, the building’s grand entrance featured marble pillars imported from Pompeii, and night after night played host to the most brilliant, most wealthy, most famous figures from New York society and around the world.
It was around this time that the Delmonico name gave itself to a first in yet another arena after the family’s boarding house was consumed another of citywide inferno in 1845. In less than a year, the Delmonico Hotel had opened at Broadway and Morris Street. The first American hotel to operate under the European model, where guests paid for their rooms and meals - served ŕ la carte, ŕ la Delmonico, of course - individually, the Delmonico Hotel brought fresh innovation to an underdeveloped industry, changing it forever. Almost immediately, it became recognized as the city’s finest hotel and was renowned throughout the world as an example of New York’s ever spiraling sophistication.
As New York evolved, so too did Delmonico’s. By the half century, Lorenzo was supervising the Delmonico stable, after John’s death in 1842 and his brother’s retirement. As an able businessman steeped and schooled in every aspect of his family’s business, Lorenzo noted the city centre moving northwards and knew that Delmonico’s had to dominate the centre of the map held by anyone who was important. Closing the hotel, he opened a new Delmonico’s opposite City Hall at the corner of Broadway and Chambers. It was an astute move, with the by now signature Delmonico touches - class, the finest European cuisine outside or at times even inside Europe - drawing leisurely wealthy for lunch - giving a swanky sense of achievement to stock brokers and financiers at dinner, and providing the more free-wheeling cream of society an appropriately gilded venue for late dining and private parties.
Lorenzo’s real estate safari continued as, in 1862, he opened an outpost of Delmonico’s even further north, one block west of Union Square, Fifth Avenue and East 14th Street. While this venture drew society figures, the final piece of Lorenzo’s glittering jigsaw, which opened in 1865 at 22 Broad Street, attracted stock brokers and other financial specialists. By this point Lorenzo had carried out the remarkable feat of ensuring that every facet of New York’s wealthiest tier had a Delmonico’s not only nearby but also one full of peers, colleagues and kindred spirits.
The Delmonico family, with its maxim of cost coming a distant second to quality, continued to retain the services of the finest chefs. Alessandro Filippini rose from the lowly position of cook at Delmonico’s Restaurant to the family’s chef de cuisine and was finally general manager at the Pine Street which is what became of the Chambers Street Delmonico’s after it was closed by Lorenzo. Charles Ranhofer, the French chef who succeeded Filippini as chef de cuisine, continued to steer the Delmonico’s four citywide restaurants in their pursuit of extravagant excellence and continental sophistication. By the time both chefs retired they were two of New York’s most respected culinary authorities, both publishing books featuring famous Delmonico’s recipes. In fact Filippini’s The Table, written for the non-professional cook, and Ranhofer’s The Epicurean, a culinary bible written for the professional chef, both came to be seen as two of the iconic treatises of American cuisine.
Although Lorenzo died in 1881, the Delmonico tradition continued to flourish through the turn of the old century and into the brave new world of the Twentieth, with a new generation faithfully applying the principles of excellence, innovation and that effortless business acumen that had literally made the family name. Amongst other things, Delmonico’s restaurants - including a plush new locale at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue which swiftly became a New York institution - were variously the first to permit smoking in the dining area, and to introduce a live orchestra to the dining experience.
However, the new century was not so kind to the Delmonico’s empire whose financial fortunes were steadily declining despite an undimmed culinary and popular reputation, and control over which was the subject of a bitter legal dispute within the family.
Having survived two citywide infernos, the passing of nearly two generations of familial leaders and even the turbulence and sacrifice of the First World War, there was a storm that even Delmonico’s could not weather. Ever the first to spot a trend, it is perhaps typical that the Delmonico family sold its last remaining restaurant on the day in 1919 of the enactment of Prohibition, which put the restaurant business into a coma from which it only revived with the repeal of what became known as one of America’s great legislative follies.
What is so unmistakably American about the story of Delmonico’s is the manner in which the application of hard work to vision is made to seem so effortless, and also that both hard work and vision were often the only things that immigrants brought with them to America. What Giovanni and Pietro did, in fact, was create a brand that satisfied and stimulated an untapped market. The Delmonico’s brand implanted the idea of a restaurant in the American subconscious, and simultaneously gave it the most flamboyant blueprint to live up to, creating a perfect circle of aspiration.
The reverberations of the Delmonico’s phenomenon can still be felt today in a culinary industry that takes vast and extravagantly priced emporiums of exotica as its standard-bearer. Signature dishes such as Eggs Benedict, Delmonico’s Potatoes, Lobster Newberg, Baked Alaska, and the Delmonico Steak - many of whom are named after the restaurants’ illustrious or noted patrons - feature prominently on menus in eateries all over the world and can all be found in The Table and The Epicurean.
Given the power of the legend, it no surprise that it lives on. Situated in the original Beaver Street building and featuring an interior that plays beautiful homage to the original Delmonico’s classically opulent styling, the Delmonico’s of the present day presents a sumptuous menu featuring a roll call of all the now iconic dishes associated with this, the grandfather, of all American restaurants.
The Delmonico Steak, in fact, can be taken as a wonderfully apt metaphor for its namesake’s profound legacy. A legendary dish served by all of the Delmonico’s Restaurants, the Delmonico Steak is unanimously agreed on as being specific cut of prime beef. It seems, however, that no one can agree on which. Opinion differs wildly and discussion rages to this day amongst chefs and gourmet butchers. The explanation that seems most fitting is that the name Delmonico has been ingrained in the American collective consciousness to such an extent that Delmonico Steak refers to the most superior cut that a particular establishment has available. Delmonico, according to this version, is no less than a synonym for the best.
- Ben Stewart
Address: 56 Beaver Street
New York, 10004
Tel: 212 509 1144 Reserve Online