The Delmonico

By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

1 oz Leopold’s Gin
0.50 oz Remy Martin VSOP
0.50 oz Dry Vermouth
0.50 oz Sweet Vermouth
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe
Garnish with a lemon twist

* * *

Lobster Newberg, Eggs Benedict, and Baked Alaska were all invented there.  Charles Dickens, Teddy Roosevelt, and Sir Walter Scott all dined there.  The concept of the á la carte menu – the basic foundation of the modern restaurant – was born there.  The proverbial “there” was Delmonico’s, America’s first real restaurant – or restaurants, as it were – located in New York City, from the mid-1800s to early 1900s.

As many great ventures begin, Delmonico’s – Swiss brothers Giovanni (John) and Pietro (Peter) Del-Monico de-hyphenated their last name when christening their business – had a humble start as a pastry shop-café on South William Street.  A few years later, John and Peter opened their first official restaurant; in 1831, their nephew Lorenzo arrived from the old country eager to emulate the opulent restaurants of Paris with their commitment to quality and service.

Under Lorenzo, the Delmonico’s name became equated with the crème de la crème of New York society; anyone who was anyone dined there, to see and be seen as it were.  Unlike the gobble-down-a-sandwich lunchrooms and the fixed-price-fixed-menu chophouses, Delmonico’s allowed its patrons to choose from a myriad of selections – by 1838, according to Robert E. Weir’s “Class in America: A-G”, the menu ran 100 pages and included over 300 sumptuous items –served at a leisurely pace by doting staff.  It was nothing short of a revolution in American eating habits, at least for those who could afford it. As William Grimes notes in “Appetite City”: “dining was not thought of as a leisure activity… Americans ate fast… and New Yorkers ate even faster.  Time spent eating was time wasted.”

At Delmonico’s, time spent eating was a sport in and of itself, a way for the rich to continually outshine one another.  In the 1880s, stockbroker patron August Belmont carried a monthly wine tab of roughly $20,000.  Ostentatious banquets featured such absurdities as $100 bills rolled into cigarettes and perfect pearls purposely placed in oysters for the guests. As a gastronomic temple of conspicuous consumption, Delmonico’s knew no rival – at least, in the beginning.  When Lorenzo died in 1881, his nephew Charles Delmonico inherited the business and continued to protect the family name and its association with quality and grandeur. It was under Charlie’s reign that Del’s gustatory battle with Louis Sherry, a rival restaurateur, began.

A humble fellow from Vermont, Sherry had dreams of reaching the heights that Delmonico’s had scaled, and his ship really came in after he catered galas for the Metropolitan Opera in 1883 and the revered Badminton Assembly in 1885.  Soon after, the crème de la crème started to talk of Sherry’s as they had once spoken of Delmonico’s.  In 1890, Sherry opened a restaurant with a 70-foot ballroom, besting Delmonico’s 50-foot version and winning the social seal of approval from Mrs. Astor. The battle royale between the two culinary titans culimated when Sherry caught wind of secret negotiations to open a new Delmonico’s uptown at Fifth and Forty-fourth Street. Shortly after Charles Delmonico announced plans to break ground, Louis Sherry finalized his own deal to open a restaurant diagonal to Del’s.  In a bit more than coincidence, Sherry’s new restaurant – the location of the famed Billings Horseback Dinner – was designed by architect Stanford White, a regular Delmonico’s patron.

Despite competition from Sherry’s and other imitators, Delmonico’s remains the ne plus ultra of 19th century haute cuisine. And, as befits a behemoth of its size and power, it was the home to numerous gastronomic “scandals”.  Perhaps the most amusing is the story behind Lobster Newberg – make that Lobster á la Wenberg.  A longtime patron of the 26th Street location, Ben Wenberg (a triple threat of sea captain, foodie, and dandy) hoped to have his name forever enshrined in gastronomic legend.  On one of his visits in 1876, he demonstrated for Charles Delmonico the making of a lobster dish he had discovered on his travels.  Charles pronounced it delicious and added it to the menu, christening it Lobster á la Wenberg.  That is, until Wenberg engaged in a fistfight at the restaurant and was punished for his crass social faux pas.  A little creative wordplay and “Wenberg” became “Newberg”; the lobster dish has been thus known ever since.

Another social misstep occurred at the hands of Delmonico’s most famous chef, Charles Ranhofer.  Although he was born and trained in France, America can lay claim to Ranhofer as our own Escoffier; aside from a three year absence, he reigned supreme over the Delmonico’s kitchens for thirty years. Toward the end of his tenure, in 1894, he created quite a stir by publishing the enormous, all-encompassing cookbook “The Epicurean”.  No French cookbook before it had been as complete – or as detailed.  So detailed, that one of Delmonico’s dining room managers took umbrage, claiming that Ranhofer had given away “the secrets of the house.” Back then, chefs simply didn’t “cook and tell.”

By 1919, the Delmonico’s empire was mired in bankruptcy due to family rivalries and poor management. Taken over by an outsider, it was closed in 1923 due to Prohibition and the slow shift in American eating habits.

While Delmonico’s as it was no longer exists, the Delmonico Cocktail (as well as its fellow No. 1 and No. 2) does, albeit being not frequently found in cocktail books.   It makes no appearance in  Boothby’s American Bar-tender (1891) or Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks (1895); the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book (1935) defines it as a dash orange bitters, ½ French vermouth, ½ Plymouth gin, two slices orange peel and claims it was  “adopted from the bar of Old Delmonico’s”.

The variations that we find in modern books offer up varying pours of Gin, Brandy, Dry and Sweet Vermouth, and Bitters.  As a Vermouth drink, it can be placed around the late 1800s, probably about 1876 according to David Wondrich, who believes it originated at Delmonico’s Madison Square location.  Wondrich’s version calls for 0.75 oz Gin and an orange twist; we’ve opted for the more commonly seen 1 oz Gin and a lemon twist.

Delmonico’s was not a cocktail establishment per se. Indeed, they celebrated the temple of Bacchus more often than not, boasting a wine cellar of some 16,000 bottles.  Still, there was a place for spirits at Del’s, so much so that the New York World called the 14th Street location “the resort of more native and foreign notabilities than perhaps any other place in the city… There distinguished literary and political persons stop daily to sip the matutinal cocktail, the anti-prandial sherry-and-bitters, the evening ‘pony’. There the Wall Street magnates drop in on their way uptown to sip the insidious mint julep, or quaff the foaming champagne cocktail.  There, the Frenchman, Spaniard, and Italian may have their absinthe, the American his Bourbon straight, the Englishman his half-and-half.  Morning, noon, and evening the place is alive with a chattering, good-natured, oft-imbibing throng.”

So, here’s to that “chattering, good-natured, oft-imbibing throng”, laid quiet by Prohibition, only to rise again another day.  Should you find yourself in pleasant company, the occasion may just be ripe to whip up a round of Delmonicos and rouse the spirits of old.  Indeed, if the Delmonico can’t return us to the Gilded Age, at least it provides a delicious way to pass the Gilded Hour.


Esoterica: Another blow to Delmonico’s continued success came in 1917 when the canvasback duck (“One of the noblest institutions of the republic” in culinary terms), a uniquely flavored specimen which fed on wild celery, was forced from its favored feeding grounds in Chesapeake Bay by the area’s new tenant, the United States Army. Having to seek food elsewhere, the canvasbacks began to dine like normal ducks – losing their distinctive flavor in the process.  Delmonico’s were compelled to remove the ever-popular item from their menu, which resulted in the loss of many angry customers.

4 responses to “The Delmonico

  1. Absolutely fabulous, David. I am cheering for your great post on Dels. It was the ne plus ultra. They really began using the incredible bounty of the New World that had languished with bad restaurants using such a tiny part of what was available and cooking it to death. Dels even had their own gardens!
    The cocktail looks amazing.

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