It’s fitting that Victorian Cape May has a cornucopia of great restaurants, since fine dining was an important part of the Victorian lifestyle. Until the latter part of the era, much of this occurred in private homes or hotels. Restaurants became popular during the 1870s. Whether the meal was at home or in a hotel or in a restaurant, Victorian dining was as much about demonstrating ones elite status and tastes as it was about eating. Where you dined and what you dined upon was not nearly as important as demonstrating that you could afford to dine and do so properly. Thus Victorian dining satisfied one’s appetite for recognition of ones elite socio-economic status at least as much as one’s hunger for food.
Proper people dined properly. They had the leisure time and disposable income to do so. Every meal was brought to them by servers or servants. When dining at home, it was a wonderful opportunity to invite guests to see how many servants you had. Equally important was displaying your extensive collection of china, glassware and silver. The lady of the house could demonstrate her skill in selecting just the right foods and complementary beverages. Dinners often featured a menu of 10 or more courses, each with its own place setting. More than a hundred pieces of silverware, a few dozen plates, and a dozen glasses per person were on display. There was also an elaborate centerpiece of flowers, narrowed at eye level for ease of conversation, which often involved the mutual affirmation of the diners’ sophistication, respectability and social status, and was more important than actually consuming food. Networking, not noshing, was the main purpose of dining together. One ate in small bites and sips to be instantly ready to swallow and then converse.
Both at home and away, Victorians dined “a la Russe.” This Russian-style service featured separate courses delivered by servants or servers. One’s place was filled by servers from large bowls and dishes placed on a sideboard, a piece of elaborate dining room furniture developed by the Victorians for that purpose.
The same rules of decorum, etiquette and manners applied to dining in hotels and restaurants. So did the same benefits to one’s reputation and status. An added enhancement was the prestige of the hotel or restaurant. Having the wherewithal to stay and dine at Congress Hall, the Stockton, the Columbia or United States in Cape May was added testimony to one’s eliteness. As restaurants appeared more and more, their eliteness was their appeal every bit as much as their culinary cuisine. Even more people could see the style in which you dined adding to your reputation. No restaurant was more elite and more status-enhancing than Delmonico’s in New York. Dining at Delmonico’s was as prestigious as resorting to Newport.
Fine dining was done in fine attire. To be improperly or informally attired for such an auspicious occasion was an ultimate faux pas. The only option a gentleman had was black or white tie with tuxedo suit or evening suit. For the lady, her task is to select a formal gown that she had not been seen in that season. Despite what some nouveau riche seemed to think, summer whites were never proper for fine dining.
And now, properly attired and with proper etiquette and manners and proper decorum, enjoy your next meal in one of Cape May’s many fine restaurants, hotels, and summer cottages as you bask in the just acclaim for your eliteness as you nourish both your body and soul.
A retired history teacher, school administrator and university professor, Dr. R.E. Heinly writes a weekly column on the Victorian Era in the Cape May Star & Wave. He is MAC’s Director of Museum Education and portrays our own Dr. Emlen Physick.