Table for two?

September 16, 2018


The idea of voluntarily dining outside the home at an establishment solely devoted to fine dining is a Victorian concept.  Prior to the era, the only time one didn’t dine at home was while traveling and then it was done at an inn, hotel or tavern.


With more and more single men moving into city rooming houses, they began to have their lunches at taverns near their workplaces.  For lower middle class men, it was lunch and dinner and a few beers at a bar.  For upper middle class and upper class men, it was a business and social networking lunch with cocktails at their prestigious men’s club.  For women it was a tea luncheon, while shopping, in the tea room of a department store like Wanamakers.  Proper women never enjoyed these tea luncheons unescorted.  One’s evening meal was always taken at home with the family and relatives or fellow roomers.


The blue collar working class, in the Victorian view, did not dine.  They simply ate breakfast and dinner at home and lunch at their workplace.


Delmonico’s changed upper class Victorian dining habits, popularizing fine dining for the evening meal.  Swiss brothers John (really Giovanni) and Peter (really Pietro) Delmonico (really Del-Monico) established the first business devoted exclusively to fine dining or restaurant (in French) in 1837 in New York.  By century’s end, their several Manhattan restaurants had become synonymous with opulent fine dining.  Each offered not only the finest food prepared by the first superstar chef, Charles Ranhofer, but ornate opulence to match any multimillionaire’s mansion:  marble and gilt walls, silk tablecloths and napkins, crystal stemware, the finest China and real silverware.  When John died and Peter retired in the 1840s, nephew Lorenzo managed Delmonico’s to its greatest height of popularity.  The Delmonicos shrewdly appealed to the Victorians’ obsession with displaying their wealth and status while offering the finest food available.  Hospitality and atmosphere were as important at Delmonico’s as haute cuisine.  Dining at Delmonico’s became not just an epicurean delight but a paramount status symbol for the social, political and economic elite of first New York and then the nation.


Among the dishes created and or popularized at Delmonico’s were Lobster Newberg, Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, Manhattan Clam Chowder, Delmonico Potatoes and of course Delmonico Steak.  The latter was the restaurant’s signature entrée, a 20-ounce rib eye with a “secret” butter and herb glaze.


Delmonico’s had many firsts in addition to being the first dining establishment to call itself a restaurant and having the first superstar chef, the aforementioned Charles Ranhofer.  Those included the first menu printed in English and French, the first separate wine list, the first private dining rooms, the first to host a ball or gala, the first tablecloths, and being the first to admit groups of women unescorted by men.


Perhaps the crowning moment in Delmonico’s history came in 1868.  As part of his second tour of the United States, Charles Dickens was feted at an extravagant banquet at Delmonico’s by the crème de la crème of New York society.  Dickens had scathingly criticized America as a boorish cultural backwater after his first tour in 1841-42.  He had gone so far as to depict it derogatorily in American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843).  Dining at Delmonico’s changed his image of America.

            The Delmonico’s group of restaurants continued to flourish under family ownership throughout the 1800s with the most famous ones being built in 1876 on Madison Square and in 1897 on 5th Avenue called the Citadel.  By the early 1900s, however, gilded dining was fading with the gilded age as the nation’s tastes and philosophies were becoming more egalitarian.  Prohibition also dealt a heavy blow to restaurants in general and Delmonico’s, in particular.  The last one closed in 1923.  Not until the 1990s was Delmonico’s revived under new ownership.  The family and their restaurants had changed fine dining in America forever.


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.