When was the last time you enjoyed a tasty meal at a restaurant? Throughout most of history prepared meals have been served at inns for travelers. But the first real restaurant appeared in France in 1765. The proprietor served soups which he called restaurants, a word meaning restoratives. The name stuck. By the early 1800s fancy dining places were all the rage in Europe. It took a little longer for the trend to spread to America. The first great American restaurant was the legendary Delmonico’s.
Delmonico’s Restaurant was one of the first continuously run restaurants in the United States and is considered to be one of the first American fine dining establishments. It opened in New York City 1827, originally in a rented pastry shop at 23 William Street. It was first listed as a restaurant in 1830. Unlike the inns that existed at the time, a restaurant like Delmonico’s would permit patrons to order from a menu(a la carte), rather than requiring its patrons to eat fixed meals. Later, Delmonico’s was also the first in the United States to use a separate wine list. The restaurant was opened by the brothers John and Peter Delmonico, from Ticino, Switzerland. In 1831, they were joined by their nephew, Lorenzo Delmonico, who eventually became responsible for the restaurant’s wine list and menu. In 1862, the restaurant hired Charles Ranhofer, considered one of the greatest chefs of his day.
Beginning in the 1850s, the restaurant hosted the annual gathering of the New England Society of New York, which featured many important speakers of the day. In 1860, Delmonico’s provided the supper at the Grand Ball welcoming the Prince of Wales. Supper was set out in a specially constructed room; the menu was French, and the pièces montées (decorative figures on the tables) represented Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the Great Eastern ship. The New York Times reported, “We may frankly say that we have never seen a public supper served in a more inapproachable fashion, with greater discretion, or upon a more luxurious scale.”
Famous patrons included Jenny Lind (who, it was said, ate there after every show), Theodore Roosevelt “Diamond Jim” Brady, Lillian Russell (usually in the company of Diamond Jim) Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, JP Morgan,Walter Scott, Nicholas Tesla, Edward VII (then the Prince of Wales), and Napoleon III of France.
The restaurant was so successful that it expanded to four New York locations and eventually to other major cities. A scene from my April Harlequin Historical, HIS SUBSTITUTE BRIDE, takes place in the San Francisco Delmonico’s. That restaurant initially survived the disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire, but during the military occupation that followed, some celebrating soldiers, feasting on leftover food and wine, accidentally set the place on fire and burned it down.
Eventually the restaurants fell on hard times. In 1923 Delmonico’s closed its doors for good and lost the exclusive rights to its name. No restaurant named Delmonico’s today is connected to the original. Some of the dishes first served at Delmonico’s are still famous today. Baked Alaska, Lobster Newberg, Delmonico Potatoes and possibly Chicken a la King were invented at Delmonico’s restaurant, but it was most famous for Delmonico Steak.
These days we have an endless variety of restaurants to choose from. What’s your favorite kind of restaurant food? Ethnic? Gourmet? Down home? Burgers and fries? Do you have a favorite restaurant? A favorite meal?