Delmonico’s can never live up to its history or its hype. The creation of Swiss brothers John and Peter Delmonico, the restaurant was founded on William Street in 1827 as a pastry shop selling “small cakes” (probably cupcakes). It soon turned into a dining room with six tables, then hopscotched around William Street until the Great Fire of 1835 razed the entire block—and most of the young city with it. A much grander restaurant arose at the smoldering corner of William and Beaver streets in 1837. By that time, the menu had ballooned to 11 pages, including 47 different veal dishes.
Delmonico’s is considered the city’s first real restaurant, replacing the table d’hôte dining rooms, eating houses, and coffee shops of earlier generations, embracing French cuisine while many Americans were still wearing fringed leather jackets and carrying flintlocks. The further history of the restaurant is too complicated to recount, but suffice it to say that various iterations of Delmonico’s moved steadily northward (at one time, there were four), even though the present location—the same as in 1837—has been home to one evocation or another for 151 discontinuous years. Most recently, the Bice Group revived the brand in 1998, returning the décor to something like its 1891 state—the year the current building was constructed.
A pair of white columns flank the front door, said to come from the ruins of Pompeii. The interior, however, is splendidly Victorian: coffered ceilings, dark mahogany paneling, massive chandeliers featuring dozens of tiny lampshades, and chairs that look like they once graced a fin de siècle bank office. The only drawback is a series of paintings imitating Monet that depict historic Delmonico’s diners in pastels, making you feel like you’re dining in a third-rate museum. Having plowed through hundreds of accounts of Delmonico’s over the years, I decided to see how the modern restaurant squared with its history. My method was to test those dishes that Delmonico’s made famous long ago.
Many were concocted under the direction of its most illustrious chef, Charles Ranhofer. Lobster Newberg is perhaps his most august creation, and the story is almost too well-known to recount. Returning from South America, ship captain Ben Wenberg told the chef about a dish he’d tasted overseas featuring lobster in a sauce composed of butter, cream, sherry, and paprika. Ranhofer knocked it off and named it after his informant—until Wenberg got into a fistfight one night in the restaurant and had to be ejected. The name was soon changed to Lobster Newberg by reversing the order of the first three letters.
The contemporary rendition ($49, now spelled “Newburg”) remains impressive: meat from a pair of pink crustaceans (Ranhofer’s original recipe called for six) parked in a long shallow plate, with a wallow of Technicolor sauce that enhances the clean taste of the lobster. Bubbling in a small crock, the Delmonico potatoes ($12) were creamy and crusty, but really no richer than you’d get in any steakhouse. Better was the newfangled crab-stuffed mac-and-cheese, tasting more of bacon than crab—a predictable menu inclusion on the part of current chef William Oliva, who needs to not only preserve antique dishes, but strike modern poses, too.
Another old warhorse called chicken à la Keene is named after financier Foxhall P. Keene. Yes, this is the same pimento-flecked chicken à la king found in every school lunchroom, with white sauce resembling library paste. Oliva’s version ($28) has been rather gracelessly updated with wide pappardelle, an assortment of exotic mushrooms, and far too many peas rolling around the plate. It’s like something you might invent at home from things found in the fridge. Much better are the oysters Diamond Jim Brady ($19), a half-dozen specimens paved with lardons and crucolo cheese—a modern dish, to be sure, but one that seems old-fashioned.
In the days when there was enough prime meat to go around, a handful of restaurants could cherry-pick the most tender and well-marbled cuts, which boiled down to porterhouse, rib-eye, and what is sometimes known as the New York strip—a top loin steak slightly further forward on the animal’s shoulder than the other two. What constitutes a Delmonico’s steak—invented well before beef butchering was standardized—is now a matter of controversy, but it was one of those three cuts. The restaurant now serves a boneless rib-eye, and it’s a beauty—an elongated mass of pink flesh, charred on top and bottom, the fat so good you won’t be able to resist gobbling every trace. Served with shredded, breaded, and fried onions, and priced at $44, it should be shared with a friend. The probable alternative is gout.