Delmonico's was the first real restaurant in New York; it was established between 1825 and 1830 depending on how you define its beginning, by two Swiss-born brothers, Jean and Pierre Delmonico (originally Del-Monico). It started out as a wine shop, and then added a small six-table cafe and pastry shop, and as business grew expanded into the restaurant which essentially introduced French-style food to the United States. Before that, Americans had regarded French food as too fancy and incorporating nasty ingredients, and had generally preferred beer or rum to wine. The restaurant was first patronized by the European-born who enjoyed having the food they had grown up with, but then became trendy among younger New Yorkers, even when the older generation denounced the food as "vile greasy compounds."

At this time in history it was extremely rare to eat away from home unless you were traveling, so Delmonico's was essentially the first restaurant in the U.S. that wasn't part of an inn or tavern. It was also unusual for the English-speaking world in having a "bill of fare," a menu with different options at different prices; inns generally included a meal of whatever they were cooking as part of the charge for an overnight stay. (Later, other restaurants would copy Delmonico's menus, though they did not necessarily have any food options at all; Owen Wister tells the story of a man in Texas who ordered from the menu and was told simply, "Stranger, you'll take hash.") Delmonico's also used unfamiliar ingredients such as eggplant and artichokes which had not been previously part of American cuisine. The ability to order the items you wanted, in small or large amounts, at whatever time you were hungry, was new and popular then; they are now standard.

Several other locations were opened throughout the city, and the family brought over more members from Europe to run them, as well as other cooks. They also started a farm to grow some of their own ingredients, and a boarding house, and in 1848, a hotel which became world famous during its eight years of operation. Many now-standard recipes were created at one of the Delmonico's restaurants: Chicken à la King, Lobster Newburg, Delmonico Steak, Oysters Rockefeller, Eggs Benedict and Baked Alaska are among them. French chef Charles Ranhofer, hired in 1862, was the major influence for thirty years, setting the standard for gourmet food, and was chief of all their other cooks until his death in 1898.

Delmonico's was the place to go for out-of-towners who could afford their prices; everyone from Mark Twain to Oscar Wilde ate there. Being able to afford Delmonico's in their heyday was a status symbol. It was definitely regarded as an upper-crust place, where the cream of society could go and others might not be admitted. The restaurants had blacklists of people who would not be served; even if they came in and ordered, their orders would never be filled. The London newspaper Pall Mall Gazette was able to remark in the 1880s that

"The two most remarkable bits of scenery in the States are undoubtedly Delmonico's and the Yosemite Valley, and the former place has done more to promote a good feeling between England and America than anything else in {that} country."
Changes were made when necessary; for example, women did not eat there at all until 1868 (it was considered rather shocking for women to eat away from home, even then; Delmonico's was one of few restaurants that would accomodate them). But by 1897, smoking became permissible in the restaurants, at the insistence of female patrons who were annoyed at men withdrawing to the smoking room after dinner and leaving them alone. But the restaurants remained popular.

Prohibition, however, ruined things for the restaurants, already suffering from some changes in management as older family members died off and others took over with different ideas. No alcohol meant that their wine cellar could no longer be a draw, nor any of their recipes made with wine, and people's dining and entertainment habits changed with the advent of the speakeasy. The last original branch closed in 1923, and though restaurants have opened under the name Delmonico's since then, none has any real connection with the original. Descendants of the Delmonico family have attempted to prevent the name from being used by restaurateurs, but U.S. courts have ruled that since the family is no longer in the business, they can't stop anyone else from using the name.

Sources:
Barr, Andrew. Drink: A Social History of America. New York: Carrol & Graf, 1999.
http://www.nextmagazine.net/restaurants/delmonicos.shtml
http://www.foodreference.com/html/fdelmonicosrestaurant.html
http://www.foodreference.com/html/qdelmonicos.html
http://www.scbbqa.com/delmonico/History.html
http://www.scbbqa.com/delmonico/Ranhofer.html

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