Sunday, February 6, 2011

DELMONICO’S FIRST OPENS - Early February 1827

5th Ave & 44th St location - 1897-1923
On February 2, 1827, Swiss immigrants Giovanni Del-Monico and his brother Pietro Antonio Del-Monico paid $312.50 to rent a quarter-house at No. 23 William Street in New York City.  Sandwiched between the business district and the dwellings of most New Yorkers, the location was ideal for the cafe that the brothers envisioned.

Only a little more than a year before, the Erie Canal had opened. Governor DeWitt Clinton had poured into the Hudson River the contents of a keg of water brought via the new canal from Lake Erie , as part of a grand ceremony. The opening of the canal marked the awakening of the small city into the major commercial metropolis it became, as goods from far inland and the Great Lakes region were now quickly transported to the port of New York City for trade and export.  The Del-Monicos deliberately designed their part in that transformation.

Giovanni, born in Switzerland in 1788, found his fortune in his early adult years from the sea.  By the time he was thirty years old, he commanded a three-masted schooner.  He traded tobacco from Cuba, wines from Spain, and lumber from the United States.  He did well, and when he decided to set up shop on land in 1824, he had amassed sizable capital.  He chose New York City, and became well known near the Battery as an importer of fine French and Spanish wines. He anglicized his first name to John for all but legal business, and the hyphen was later dropped, most likely as a marketing measure.

“The significance of the Erie Canal for New York’s future was clear to this thrifty wine merchant,” writes Lately Thomas in Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor.  “In many ways the city was little better than primitive, and it was almost totally deficient in amenities which were commonplace in Europe. As the town acquired wealth, there would be an increasing demand for the luxuries that wealth can provide, and John Del-Monico surmised that by supplying some of the things lacking in the city he might be more profitably engaged than in selling wines at retail.” John wanted to open what would become the modern restaurant.

Restaurants - public dining rooms - were unknown in that day. Diners without means to cook their own food relied on the meals provided by the local inns and hotels where they roomed, whose kitchens catered only to their tenants.  Taverns and a few inadequate cafes met the immediate needs of hungry souls walking the streets. Menus did not yet exist; you ate what was served you. Although it may have met basic nutritional needs, the food rarely inspired favorable comment.

John knew he needed help to build his vision, so he went back to Switzerland in 1826 and consulted with his older brother Pietro, who was a confectioner.  Pietro listened carefully to John’s ideas, measuring them against his own interests before deciding. He had a family, and his well-established trade was lucrative. He saw John’s arguments as sound and practical, however, and agreed to partner with him in New York. They had about $20,000 in capital between them, a staggering sum in those days, which would go far if wisely invested.

Back in New York City, “Delmonico & Brother” started small. Half a dozen plain pine tables with chairs provided customers a place to sit. (This idea of private tables for customers was novel.) A counter covered with a white cloth displayed Pietro’s pastries and confections. John served the coffee and hot chocolate. Pietro’s wife was the cashier and accountant, a woman employee, another novelty which drew American customers. The shop also offered the wines for which John was known, liquors, fancy ices, and fine tobacco products. They kept the shop neat and clean, a third novelty to the public in either the New World or the Old.

The city’s European residents were first to discover this little oasis. The brothers kept their prices as Spartan as the furnishings, but the shop’s popularity enabled them to make a profit. The combination of the quality of their wares and their hospitality was found nowhere else in the city, but the brothers refused to take advantage with elevated prices. Their business sense, reputation, and skill enabled them to make good deals.

Lorenzo Delmonico, nephew of John & Peter
Because of their intelligent marketing and provision of high-quality goods, the brothers expanded into the property next door in less than three years, and a formal kitchen and restaurant opened in 1830 with superlative French cooks who brought to the American palate new flavors using commonly available and previously ignored ingredients. They provided a bill of fare - a menu - another new concept. The proprietors and the wait staff treated each customer with impeccable service. The Delmonicos made lunch or dinner a reason for going out. Thus, also, was born the original businessman’s power lunch.

As circumstances and fortunes changed, Delmonico’s expanded and moved several times, bringing in more family members who exhibited a natural acumen to management of the business, especially John and Peter's nephew Lorenzo. In 1837, the establishment first took on the name “Delmonico’s Restaurant.” At one time, the business boasted four branches throughout the city, each drawing a different clientele. It finally settled at Fifth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street, opening in 1897, and closing in 1923, partly a victim of prohibition, although many other cultural factors had their influence, including the decline of societal distinctions.

Throughout its history, the restaurant was a gathering place for everyone who was anyone. Early on, Albert Gallatin (Secretary of the Treasury for Jefferson and Madison) frequented the shop. Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Makepeace Thackeray dined here, and in 1866, from one of the dining rooms, Samuel B. Morse sent the first telegram over the newly repaired trans-Atlantic cable. (The cable had failed eight years before after having only functioned for a few weeks.) Sam Ward (“King of the Lobby”), Boss Tweed, “Diamond” Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, Jenny Lind, Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, J. P. Morgan, and Edith Wharton were regular patrons, among many others of varying notoriety, and every President and future President from Monroe through Franklin D. Roosevelt was a guest there at one time or another.

1837 restaurant building, open today
Many restaurants have copied the name, hoping to cash in on the marketable name, both during Delmonico’s tenure (which the Delmonicos sometimes fought in the courts) and after its closing. But the original Delmonico’s business is gone, and there is no connection between the original and any that followed. “The Original Delmonico’s Steakhouse Restaurant,” located at 56 Beaver Street (sometimes called South William Street), one of original locations, has been open off and on since 1929. This building was the first which the Delmonicos built in 1837 specifically as a restaurant. It is currently open, and has been refurbished to resemble the splendor of the original in its turn-of-the-century heyday. It also strives to provide its patrons with the original excellence in both food and service.

Delmonico’s Restaurant has given us the Delmonico steak (a boneless rib-eye), Delmonico Potatoes, Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, Oysters Rockefeller, and Lobster Newburg, among other original dishes.

Thomas, Lately. Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967.


  1. I really enjoyed this article. I've lived in NYC, and I've never been to Delmonico's. I just made reservations. Have to try it!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Far from a New Yorker myself (I hail from Maine, though I live in Mass. now), I was intrigued by the story of Delmonico's Restaurant when I picked up that history "Delmonico's: A Century of Splendor," at a library book sale in York, Maine, for a dollar. I have interests in the history of foodstuffs as well, initially generated when I took up living history re-enacting during the Bicentennial.