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The modern restaurant as we know it was invented in 1831 south of Wall Street at Delmonico’s, based on Swiss and French models. The previous sort of establishment was usually a hotel dining room with limited dinner choices; a coffeehouse that offered tea sandwiches, pastries, and sometimes a set meal or two; and eating houses that made the food-fight scene in Animal House look tame.
These types of venues held down the lower end of the dining spectrum (the wealthy had their own cooks, the poor ate at home or in the streets), and a meal at any of these places was likely to occur in a hubbub. Further discomfited by sometimes having to stand, eaters were expected to finish their meals in 20 minutes or less, just like at franchise fast-food restaurants today. There was nothing relaxing about eating in a New York restaurant before the advent of Delmonico’s, and it was enough to give you indigestion.
But suddenly fine dining hit town. A meal occurred at a more leisurely pace; the table was set with fine napery and crystal, and the bill of fare offered a bewildering number of choices. At first the menu was mainly French and prix fixe, but gradually it became à la carte, meaning you had lots of choice to make, and it included other cuisines besides French as waves of immigrants influenced American gastronomy. By 1900, you could get German, Irish, Middle Eastern, and even Chinese food, all in a single fine-dining establishment.
Following are the 10 best restaurants the city has seen in the last two centuries. These are the places that, in their own times, exhibited the most buzz and had the best food. We don’t include restaurants that have made their reputations in the last 10 years — such as Eleven Madison Park, Jean Georges, Masa, and Per Se — nor do we include places that fall short of being a true restaurant as defined by the Delmonico brothers (Di Fara, Trattoria D’Alfredo, the Automat, and Sripraphai, that leaves you out!). These restaurants are upscale, too, since few records exist of any but the most expensive places.
The restos are presented chronologically, but in order to not cop out on our promise to say which are the best, a ranked list is provided on the last page. We are indebted to many sources, including dozens of restaurant review books by Malcolm Forbes, Craig Claiborne, Seymour Britchky, Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, and many others; to the New York Times online archive; to the New York Public Library Picture Collection; to The Encyclopedia of New York City; to the WPA Guide to New York; to Food and Drink in America by Richard Hooker; to countless period cookbooks; to On the Town in New York by Michael and Ariane Batterberry; and, of course, to Wikipedia.
1. Bank Coffee House, 43 Pine Street (1814-1828) — Though we generally credit Alice Waters with inventing locavorism, Irish immigrant William “Billy” Niblo was way ahead of her, as he offered his guests “bald eagle shot on the Grouse Plains of Long Island” and “hawk and owl shot in Turtle Grove, Hoboken.” According to his obituary in the Times (August 22, 1878), “He had the peculiar habit, when he had procured some rare dish, of making it an occasion for a public reception of his patrons, all of whom he desired should partake of the delicacy.” One evening he treated his guests to an entire roast bear wheeled into the dining room standing up and still smoking. Niblo closed the Bank in 1828, and soon thereafter founded a vast theater complex and dining garden at Prince Street and Broadway called the Sans Souci, where musical theater along modern lines was invented.
2. Delmonico’s, 21-23 William Street (1831-1923, intermittently thereafter) — In 1831 Swiss brothers John and Peter Delmonico founded the city’s first formal restaurant, which evolved out of a pastry shop they started in 1829 on William Street. Two years later, they added six pine tables and began serving hot meals. A lady cashier — very unusual for that age — also attracted customers. The great fire of 1835 caused the first of what was to be several moves, landing the restaurant in 1837 at the corner of William and Beaver, where a later version of the restaurant still stands today. By that time, the menu had come to encompass 346 entrées, printed in French and English, including 29 versions of beef filet with various preparations and sauces. It was just like eating at Shopsin’s! Over the course of a century, many dishes were invented at Delmonico’s, including Lobster Newburg, pie à la mode, baked Alaska, and the Delmonico steak. Suddenly the wealthy and famous were all dining out, a habit they’ve never abandoned to this day.
Dining innovations: French chef S.B. Monnot instituted à la carte dining in 1844 (before that, you paid one price for your entire meal, whatever options you exercised for various courses) at New York Hotel, and provided room service there for the first time, too.
3. Restaurant at the Waldorf Hotel, later the Waldorf-Astoria, Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street (1893-1943) — This eating establishment was famously presided over by former Delmonico’s waiter Oscar Tschirky (later universally known as “Oscar of the Waldorf”), who knew all the celebrities of his age from the fields of finance, government, and the arts. He established the first door policy for his restaurant, quite literally inventing the velvet rope. Though he wasn’t a chef, he is often credited with popularizing eggs Benedict, Waldorf salad, Thousand Island dressing, and veal Oscar — breaded cutlets served with crab, asparagus, and a cheddar-cheese sauce. Tschirky was also big on ostentatious service, with many dishes being finished table-side, using fire whenever possible.
4. Rector’s, Broadway and 44th Street (1899-1914) — In a sense, Rector’s represented a natural extension and democratization of opulent restaurants for the wealthy like Delmonico’s and the Waldorf-Astoria. Located in the new Theater District around Times Square, it catered to actors, musicians, and theatergoers, offering the core of French cuisine that was to be expected, but also turning out effete versions of dishes that represented the incursion of Italian (chicken cacciatore), German (wiener schnitzel), Yankee (oyster stew), Anglo-Indian (lamb curry), Lebanese (pilaf), and even Chinese food (chicken chop suey) into the popular taste. Rector’s was the first restaurant to entertain its patrons with jazz and show tunes. Other places followed, in what was to become a restaurant genre called “lobster palaces,” of which the Oyster Bar at Grand Central is one of the few remaining examples.
5. Barbetta, 321 West 46th Street (1906-present) — Piedmont native Sebastiano Maioglio brought refined northern Italian food to the rear end of the Metropolitan Opera on West 39th Street, where Barbetta catered to Italian-born musicians, later moving to its current location. The restaurant introduced an enormous number of Italian delicacies to the American public for the first time, including white truffles, fresh porcini mushrooms, and espresso from a real espresso machine. Writing in his 1930 Dining in New York, critic Rian James gave Barbetta effusive praise: “[T]he Finocchio, the Veal Cotlette Parmigiana, the Scallopine of Veal al Marsala, and the curly Chicory with Barbetta dressing, are the things that have made the establishment stand out like an oasis in a desert of French Table d’hotes, one-arm cafeterias, and synthetic Italian Gardens” (as quoted recently in Eater National). But by the modern era, the restaurant had slipped from its earlier heights. Despite a newly sumptuous decor, heavy with 18th-century Piedmontese furnishings, the 1990 Zagat guide declared that the restaurant is like “an aristocratic Italian lady suffering from severe arthritis.”
6. 21 Club, 21 West 52nd Street (1930-present) — Like Oscar’s Waldorf, the 21 Club was the restaurant that defined “exclusive” for its age. It started as a speakeasy, and introduced the idea that you were to be judged by the table you were given — the corners were reserved for celebrities. “One of the finest restaurants in the world, operated as though it were a private club,” said restaurant critic Lawton Mackall in his landmark review book, Knife and Fork in New York (1948). The cellar contained a reputed 40,000 bottles, and the signature recipes included steak tartare, chicken hash, all sorts of raw shellfish and caviar, crab cakes, and Caesar salad. Even today, you can see the limos lined up in front of its premises, lavishly decorated with wrought iron and, rather absurdly, the figures of lawn jockeys named for famous patrons.
7. Le Pavillon, 5 East 55th Street (1941-1971) — Under restaurateur Henri Soule, Le Pavillon began life as Le Restaurant du Pavillon de France, the eating establishment of the French pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. The food it presented was a revelation to New York diners, who were still eating French food directly descended from Delmonico’s, with heavy cream-based sauces and massive portions. Le Pavillon presented the cuisine for the first time in its evolved form. The restaurant moved to Manhattan in 1941, and in 1964, near the start of his reviewing career, Craig Claiborne of the Times was still able to exclaim, “Le Pavillon is and has been since its opening in 1939 the finest French restaurant in New York and probably in the United States.” Signature dishes included chicken braised in champagne, filet of sole bonne femme, lamb stew with vegetables, and beef bourguignon.
8. Coach House, 110 Waverly Place (1949-1993) — Owned by Greek immigrant Leon Lianides, this intimate Greenwich Village restaurant took its inspiration not from French cuisine but from sturdy American fare, and thus launched a movement that is still being felt today. In doing so, Lianides influenced countless of today’s chefs, beginning with James Beard, who could often be seen at the bar eating a bowl of the restaurant’s famous sherry-laced black bean soup. And chef Anne Rosenzweig noted enthusiastically, “Oh, those corn sticks, you thought about them for weeks before you finally went for dinner. It was a forerunner of the American cooking we do today.”
9. Lutece, 249 East 50th Street (1961-2004) — Under the direction first of founder Andre Surmain, and later André Soltner, Lutece was the natural successor to Le Pavillon as the place that hoisted the banner of modern French cuisine. But what a difference a couple of decades had made! Now the signature dish was foie gras luxuriously soaked in chocolate sauce with a side of bitter marmalade, an unctuous turtle soup, and an Alsatian onion tart that was soon copied in half the city’s restaurants, and remains a dining standard today. In the early ’80s, Mimi Sheraton rhapsodized over the apps: “[The] possibilities are extraordinary, whether you choose the puffy, crisp-crusted Alsatian onion tart, the fine juniper-perfumed duck mousse or foie gras baked in an eggy brioche dough, the feuillete puff pastry, filled with the whipped, creamed salt codfish, brandade, and then finished with a pink beurre blanc.” Obviously, nouvelle cuisine had yet to make its mark.
10. Daniel, 60 East 65th Street (1993 to present) — Of Lyon native Daniel Boulud, the Times‘ Molly O’Neill has said, “Half of Boulud is a big-city executive; the other half is a shy, fastidious Frenchman who cooked his way off his family’s farm to the apex of his craft.” He began at Le Cirque in 1983, but a decade later had started his eponymous restaurant (with a $2 million loan from the CEO of Playtex), by many considered to be the finest in town (others say Le Bernardin). By November 1993, he’d already received four stars from the Times’ Marian Burros. When he moved Daniel from the location that currently holds Café Boulud in 1998, Ruth Reichl was quick to reassure us about the new location: “How’s the food? Do you really need to ask? If you were a fan of Daniel, you know what to expect: First-rate French food from a talented chef at the peak of his powers.” Typical main courses include roasted skate with arugula, “heirloom” tomatoes, black olives, saffron potatoes, and a fennel-tomato emulsion; and roasted rack of lamb with a lemon-rosemary crust, grilled radicchio, honey-glazed eggplant, and a sweet garlic panisse, a french fry made with chickpea puree.
Next: Our rankings …
9. 21 Club
8. Restaurant at the Waldorf-Astoria
6. Coach House
3. Bank Coffee House
1. Le Pavillon