Until the Delmonico brothers opened their eponymous eatery in 1837, New York City didn't have a proper restaurant, just cafes and inns where diners had little control over what they were served. Delmonico's, New York's first a la carte restaurant on 2 South William Street, favored French cuisine, cloth-covered tables and a printed menu designed by the first "star chef," Charles Ranhofer.
The locations and owners changed hands many times over the years, and the current iteration of Delmonico's has no connection to the original beyond the name and the luxurious location, which faithfully replicates the subdued grandeur of a bygone era.
The current owners, Ocinomled Ltd., expanded with another location in Hell's Kitchen in 2012, but the old William Street spot (which the restaurant lists as 56 Beaver Street, but it's the same place) still serves some of the iconic dishes that made their world debut at the storied institution nearly 180 years ago.
Current Executive Chef Billy Oliva, who's been with Delmonico's for the past eight years, says the classics are still the restaurant's most popular dishes. "Delmonico's Steak, it's our signature ribeye," Oliva says of the restaurant's most popular dish. "Steak never goes out of style. It's a food that people are very familiar and comfortable with."
"People don’t eat the way they use to. People are much more health conscious and much more educated about where their food comes from. Is it farm-to-table? Is the restaurant supporting local purveyors?" Oliva observes. "Delmonico's was the first restaurant to offer farm-to-table dining [and] the Delmonico brothers started the first farm-to-table concept. Not satisfied by the quality of produce they could get in the markets of NYC, they bought a 220 acre farm in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and sourced their own. Today, we continue the Delmonico's brothers' standards and source from local purveyors. We know our farmers, our fishermen, etc."
Below, a few facts about the restaurant's history, as well as a glimpse at the current iteration of Delmonico's and its signature dishes.
- The Delmonico brothers purchased land in Williamsburg to grow their own vegetables, making the restaurant a (very) early adopter of the farm-to-table movement. It's said they grew produce like artichokes and other vegetables that weren't readily available to American diners.
- The restaurant's very first menu reportedly offered things like Liver and Bacon, Beef or Mutton Stew, Ham and Eggs and Corn Beef and Cabbage. A "Regular Dinner" cost 12 cents.
- Delmonico's claims to be the inventor of several notable dishes, including Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska and Chicken A la Keene. Lobster Newburg appeared on the menu in 1876 after chef Charles Ranhofer "reined" the Lobster a la Wenberg dish originally created by a sea captain and Delmonico's regular named Ben Wenberg.
- One story even claims that Ranhofer "introduced New York to the 'alligator pear' or avocado," newly imported from South America.
- Mark Twain celebrated his 70th birthday at Delmonico's, dining with Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Dorothy Canfield, and his nephew Samuel E. Moffett.
- Women were permitted to dine at Delmonico's in the early days but, like many restaurants of the time, only if they were accompanied by men. Special women's-only dining areas were the only places women could dine together without a male "chaperone."
- The Delmonico's name was so synonymous with quality and fine dining that copycat Delmonico's restaurants popped up around the USA.
- The Delmonico's owned several other Manhattan restaurants bearing the family name, as the brothers' nephew Lorenzo Delmonico followed the push of new establishments opening further uptown. The last Delmonico's closed in 1923.
- Prohibition—along with constantly changing ownership among the Delmonico family heirs—contributed to Delmonico's demise. With no wine available for cooking, let alone drinking, and patrons shifting to at-home dining to booze without fear of raids, the restaurant couldn't survive. The final meal on May 21st, 1923, was said to be served with mineral water.
- The 2 South William Street space has operated as three different Delmonico's entities—all unaffiliated with the Delmonico family—from 1929 until today. The current owner, Ocinomled Ltd., filed to trademark the name to make a Delmonico's steak sauce in 2004.