Delmonico’s Restaurant, New York
The legendary Delmonico’s restaurant dominated New York society for almost one hundred years from 1824-1923 representing a standard of excellence in food, elegance and service.
Giovanni (John) Delmonico was the youngest of three sons born 1788 in Switzerland on the border with Italy. He eventually settled in New York opening a shop in 1824 near the Battery as an importer of French and Spanish wines. His older brother Peter, a pastry chef in Berne, joined him and both brothers under the name of ‘Delmonico Brothers’ decided to open a cafe and pastry shop at 23 William Street in 1827 and then a restaurant next door where they introduced a carefully economized French cuisine and courteous service. At the time few restaurants existed and providing a hot lunch became a popular novelty and innovation.
Success meant that four nephew arrived to help in the business – Lorenzo, Siro, Francois and Constantine. Success also meant expansion with a country estate and a lodging house at 76 Broad Street. When a fire destroyed the William Street building in 1835 they opened a new restaurant on a site at the junction of Beaver, William and South William Streets in September 1837 affectionately called ‘The Citadel’. The pillars supporting the portico came from Pompeii itself and were said to be the oldest architectural features in New York.
With an investment of over $100 million it had a gloriously sumptuous interior with private dining rooms that outstripped the competition by emphasising lavishness, attention to detail, quality of food and service and an extensive wine cellar. One of the upstairs dining rooms had a parquet floor and with its handsome proportions made a perfect ballroom. The establishment became the social mecca for balls and other forms of entertainments well into the 1850s and its success was highlighted by the eradication of the social taboo preventing women entering such a place and the huge desire to dance, especially amongst the younger set.
In 1840 Francois died followed by John and Lorenzo took over the running of the business with Peter and they opened a hotel on Broadway facing Bowling Green in 1846. Following the migration of fashionable New York society uptown, Lorenzo relocated Delmonico’s to the corner of Broadway and Chambers street in 1856 and then in 1860 (the year Peter died) another restaurant opened on the site of the old Grinnell Mansion at 5th Ave and 14th Street. With it s beautiful ballrooms, dining rooms and private rooms it eclipsed the glories of previous establishments and became the greatest of all Delmonico’s institutions influencing the social etiquette of New York and the nation for decades to come.
One of the first restaurants to openly compete with Delmonico’s materialised with the sumptuously appointed Maison Doree (recalling the Parisian establishment of that name) which opened in 1861 on the South side of Union Square between Broadway and 4th Avenue. However, Delmonico’s at 14th Street kept its prominence by staging regular dances under the patronage of established matrons and they lured away Charles Ranoffer, the head chef from Maison Doree. Then in 1870 Archibold Gracie Kent (a famous banker) rather than stage a ball at his home, gave the first private ball at Delmonico’s to introduce his daughter to society. Thus, not only did Delmonico’s start the trend of staging private functions but also the first coming out balls for ‘debutante’ young ladies.
Thereafter, Delmonico’s became the place for social gatherings par excellence and banquets, balls and gala entertainments were staged with increased sumptuousness including the exclusive Patriach Balls in the 1870s. The café at 14th Street also became a notable resort for distinguished literary, political and society notables who stopped in daily for cocktails and chat. Delmonico’s also relaxed their rules about women who were now allowed unescorted in the restaurant until the dinner hour.
Despite the crash and collapse of 1873 and a depression, once again as the tide of fashion moved northward, so Delmonico’s decamped in 1876 from 14th street to 26th and 5th Avenue facing Madison Square into an equally well appointed venue. This was the location of the new hub of handsome residences and Delmonico’s sparkled with a main dining room on the ground floor and a men’s café, ballrooms and other rooms on the upper floors. In 1877 the restaurant at Chambers and Broadway was closed and relocated to 112 Broadway and Pine.
Despite attacks by puritans, (including a temperance battle that precipitated prohibition) and dancing being attacked for its late hours, extravagance and alleged danger to health, the 1870s was America’s Gilded Age and balls continued one after the other at the new Delmonico’s and at dozens of other venues. According to Arthur Murray during the season 1865-1866, 600 balls were given in New York and an estimated $7 million spent by the guests with dancing as the principal feature. Dance halls, concert saloons and beer gardens sprung up everywhere affording new places for everyone, not just the privileged few, to dance.
Gradually Lorenzo shifted the burden of the business to Charles (son of Francois), his nephew and when Lorenzo died 1881, followed shortly by Siro, Charles took control of Delmonico’s.
Louis Sherry opened another threat in 1890 at 5th Ave and 37th street. Magnificent and opulent, Sherry’s one notable feature was the spacious 70 square foot ballroom that outshone in splendour, the somewhat tarnished red and gold 50 square foot ballroom of Delminico’s at 26th Street. Sherry’s immediately captured some of the season’s smartest dance affairs and become equal with Delmonico’s in the stakes of the smartest restaurant in New York. But, not to be caught out, Delmonico’s promptly redecorated their ballroom in an elaborate Louis Quinze style.
At the same time (in 1891) the old Citadel at Beaver and William Street was replaced by a new structure on the same site, but this time eight stories high. A cafe and the restaurant were on first floor; on the second floor were a ladies dining room and two private dining rooms. The Kitchen was on the top floor. Later, in 1897 Delmonico’s following the trend of nightlife moving northward, moved uptown from 26th street to the northeast corner of 5th Ave and 44th street. Once again here was the usual luxury: a ladies restaurant, Palm Garden, Cafe on the ground floor, first floor dining rooms (including a Blue room upholstered in satin), a ballroom on the third floor and a roof conservatory. Thus, Delmonico’s had an uptown and downtown establishment.
Between 1890 and 1910 there was a huge growth of new and luxurious dining options that were called lobster palaces because of their gilded interiors and late night lobsters suppers. These venues had exceptionally elegant decor and interiors, perfect service and excellent cuisine. Delmonico’s was no longer the only dining experience favoured by the sophisticated and wealthy and there was stiff competition from such places as the Waldorf Astoria, Bustanoby’s, Churchill’s, Martin’s, Maxim’s, Murray’s Roman Gardens, Rectors, Knickerbocker Grill, Shanley’s and Reisenweber’s. Most were located above and near Broadway and 42nd street in the district to become known as Times Square and catered for those looking for dinner, after-theatre suppers and late night entertainment.
When Charles Delmonico died in 1901 the business was handed over to his aunt, Rosa Delmonico and when she died in 1904 her niece Josephine Crist Delmonico took over. Despite rising income, financial difficulties arose and certain relatives were not happy with the management of the business. After lengthy challenges Delmonico’s was resolved into a stock company that opened the way for an infusion of capital. And yet, despite all the legal wrangling Delmonico’s, regarded as a citadel of conservatism, continued as a convention of social form and custom, and once again it became a perfect venue for society balls and functions.
As many other comparable venues opened indoor roof gardens for the summer months, so did Delmonico’s and a marvellous new Palm Trellis room was unveiled in 1909 in the uptown venue. It was cool and inviting with electric fans, the white trelliswork was covered in wisteria, the window boxes were filled with hydrangeas and even the elevators had matching decor. For the 1910 autumn season the main restaurant was redecorated in a light shade of green. The walls of the main dining room were hung with silk and at the windows were Louis XV cream lace curtains which harmonised with the natural wood carvings and onyx fireplace. Yellow and brown tones prevailed and large palms and lamps with yellow shades added to the feeling of subdued richness. Two new features were introduced with afternoon tea and after theatre supper rooms, plus an orchestra conducted by Sixte Busoni who played in each room.
On the surface all appeared good and prosperous and the lease on the uptown restaurant was renewed in 1911 to 1927. But custom and tradition were not enough to keep a place running. Attempts were made to keep up with the new trend of cabaret and the society dance Joan Sawyer was engaged in early 1914 to entertain guests in the trellised gardens. With the outbreak of war the management lent every cooperation to the war effort and organised fund raising events. But in 1917 the downtown Beaver Street restaurant was closed and sold. With looming prohibition, Delmonico’s like other restaurants sold of its wine cellar. It was not long before bankruptcy proceedings were filed and eventually the uptown Delmonico’s was sold to Edward L. C. Robins on the day that prohibition came into effect in 1919. Robins struggled to maintain morale but lost and on 21st May 1923 was forced to close.
But thereafter, the name was still a draw and in 1929 for example, the plush Hotel Delmonico opened at Park Avenue and 59th Street. This thirty-one storey structure was grand and imposing with a restaurant, grill room or café and ballroom, along with private suites or apartments on the upper twenty-seven stories. At about the same time a restaurateur called Oscar Tucci opened a revived Delmonico’s at 2 South William Street, which stayed in business until 1977. Other Delmonicos have operated in the space from 1981–1992 and from 1998 to the present.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
In terms of its gastronomic legacy, Delmonico’s introduced such classics as a boneless ribeye steak, Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedicte, Manhattan clam chowder, Lobster Newberg, Oysters Rockefeller and a Hamburger.
New York Times, Vogue
Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendour by Lately Thomas
Delmonico’s: A Story of Old New York (1928)
Stepping Out by Lewis A. Erenberg (New York Nightlife and the transformation of American Culture 1890-1930)