Food

Amid Delmonico’s Gilded Age Splendor, Diners Party Like It’s 1899

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A rude wind sweeps down the empty streets of the Financial District on a recent Monday night. Apart from the stray spray of tourists who ignore  the Bull and take pictures of the Fearless Girl instead, the neighborhood is dead. In that sepulchral stillness, zipped up in the body bag of night, Wall Street has assumed the ageless character of a corpse. Scrubbed of filth and action, she is timeless. In her presence, New York has reversed through time, her growth has crept back downtown, farmland has reclaimed the upper reaches, the rich have become richer and the poor poorer until we have ended back in the Gilded Age.

There is perhaps no better proof of terminal capitalism’s violent nature than the fact that when the markets close, and after the bars disgorge their last potbellied patrons, wrists weighed down by compensatory timepieces, Lower Manhattan heaves a seismic sigh of relief. Wall Street in the moonlight is an urchin of singular beauty, quiet and wide-eyed and heartbroken.

There is, of course, one light that remains burning well into the night. The beacon belongs to the Zelig-like Delmonico’s, America’s first restaurant and for many years its best. Delmonico’s has pop-a-moled in and out of existence since 1827, when it began as a pastry shop run by two Swiss brothers. Contrary to rhetoric and appearance, the singular building which one enters at the corner of Williams and Beaver streets today, a wedge of eight stories in a Renaissance Revival style with marble columns rumored to have been salvaged from Pompeii and which regulars regularly rub for good luck, is not the original location. A few doors away at 23 William Street, that first attempt burnt down, along with everything else, in 1835. It’s now luxury condos.

Delmonico’s current building dates back to 1890. It was designed during the brilliant but shortened career of architect James Brown Lord, who expired in 1902 after a snake oil salesman from Chicago named Elden De Witt  insisted on undertaking a loud renovation next door to Lord’s 54th Street home. This, according to a lawsuit of minor fame, ruined the constitution of the delicate genius, who died at age 43. The current iteration of Delmonico’s dates back only to 1998. Having survived the Gilded Age, Delmonico’s closed during World War I, then was yanked back to life in the 1930s, under the guidance of Oscar Tucci, who originally called it Oscar’s Oldelmonico. But after Tucci closed the doors in the 1970s, the space stood empty for years. That changed two decades ago when the space was purchased by a happy quartet of Croats, including the soccer star Ferdo Grgurev, which goes by the name Ocinomled Ltd. (That’s Delmonico’s backward.) Or at least they were a happy quartet of Croats until 2017, by which time, as Judge Gregory Wood wrote, quite wittily, I think, “The relationship between them has now gone to pot, devolving into this acrid stew which, after long simmering, has now come to a boil.” It was an issue of the misuse of Delmonico’s steak sauce, among other complaints, that tore them asunder. Now who knows who owns the place? As I rub the Pompeian columns, who cares? Delmonico’s is an idea more than a building. Nevertheless, this welter of now-people and then-people, and the mess of their passions, and the mass of their stories, is an apt embodiment of what history offers us as we peer back into it.

Sitting on a couch near the coat check under the gaze of an oil portrait of Charles Ranhofer, Delmonico’s most famous chef who manned the stoves between 1862 and 1896, my dinner companion knows the complications of history. He’s a tall man, closing in on his sixth decade, whose spritely eyes twinkle in the low light. He wears a plain gray suit of a slightly darker hue than his hair and, between the floral carpet and rosette wallpaper, reads as an outline of understatement. He is Simon Baatz. A Londoner by birth but an American by choice, Baatz is a professor of American history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author, most recently, of The Girl on the Velvet Swing. The book — which concerns one of New York’s most important Gilded Age architects, Stanford “Stanny” White; his rape of a sixteen-year-old chorus girl named Evelyn Nesbitt; and his subsequent murder by the wealthy, mentally unstable playboy who married her — was published earlier this year. It joins a raft of recent and near-term works fascinated with the last decades of the 19th Century. But the allure seems not to be the years — which spanned almost exactly Ranhofer’s time at Delmonico’s — in general. Rather we are held rapt by how unbridled wealth and relative lawlessness of an adolescent city formed an incandescent guillotine that cuts through history today.

Baatz’s subtitle, “Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,” might just as well have been appended to Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist, from 1994. That book, a terribly pedantic but strangely compelling historical novel, features Depravity! Power! and Forensic Psychology! The story isn’t true, but it is true-ish, and the pages are peopled with before-they-were-famous characters like a young Teddy Roosevelt. In the book, much of the action takes place here — or here-ish — at Delmonico’s. “It is often difficult, I find, for people today to grasp the notion that one family, working through several restaurants, could change the eating habits of an entire country,” writes Carr’s protagonist, John Schuyler Moore, in one of the novel’s many Wikipedian passages. “But such was the achievement of the Delmonicos in the United States of the last century.” Yadda yadda yadda. When it came out, The Alienist was a New York Times bestseller, and it has been enjoying a revival after TNT gave it the prestige drama treatment. And not to gild the lily, but one must also mention that Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, the Aaron Sorkin of the very rich, is at work on a new drama based on the Gilded Age, called I think, Gilded Age. That will premiere in 2019 on NBC. And then there is the Gilded Age comedy — yes, one exists — Another Period on Comedy Central. The Gilded Age is back, baby!

I have invited Baatz here to find out why, right now, we’re so damn obsessed. But as we walk through the dining room, perhaps 70 percent full and not just by spot-’em-from-a-mile-away finance types but what look to be a real mix of in- and out-of-towners of sundry nationalities and varied age, the answer seems obvious. “I mean, look at the restaurant,” says Baatz, gesturing to the glowing chandeliers, the oil paintings depicting scenes of conviviality that line the walls like strong suggestions to have a good time, and the white tablecloths laden with heavy-handled silverware and big-belled wineglasses. And that is just what is in our line of vision; I, like Baatz, know that above us are Delmonico’s famed private rooms. Here and there, up and down, had once eaten all of America’s great men, from Mark Twain (who coined the term Gilded Age) to Abe Lincoln to Charles Dickens.

If once Delmonico’s was on the cutting edge of American cuisine, it is no longer. If anything, the menu — heavy as a Bible and as leather-bound as a gimp — is the back of the blade. That’s not a knock. Edges need spines just as rectos need versos. Here one finds the expected recitation of classics: a seafood plateau, a shellfish chateau, Maryland crab cakes, shrimp cocktails, and, of course, a sizable selection of steaks and chops. It’s standard steakhouse fare, an indicator of Delmonico’s vast influence, and the snatches of the restaurant’s history are worn but lightly. There are the oysters Jim Brady — fried and topped with a champagne, cream, and pancetta mixture  that the Gilded Age’s prodigal son Diamond Jim Brady preferred when he dined here with his mistress, chorus girl Lillian Russell. That sort of fuck-the-cardiologist eating is woven through the menu’s DNA. One of the four steak sauces on offer is the Newburg Sauce, a gout-inducing invention of Ranhofer’s made with lobster, cognac, and cream. Ditto Chicken a la Keene, a creamy chicken concoction whose birthplace is contested but for which Delmonico’s makes a credible claim. And, there on the dessert menu, one finds Baked Alaska, which originated here in 1867 to celebrate the purchase from Russia of Alaska. It is telling that the name of the current chef — Billy Oliva, who has led the kitchen for the last decade — is nowhere to be found, not on the menu, not on the website, nowhere.

The food is solid, stolid, built to last. It’s unremarkable in a way that is not at all unenjoyable. The sea bass Baatz orders arrives, artfully placed in a bowl the size of a hubcap with a generous curl of lobster alongside it and skin as crisp as a sunbird. The crab cakes, he says, “melts in my mouth.” The OJB, alas, rest there as heavy fried pucks, but the boneless rib eye — the so-called Delmonico’s steak — comes exactly as one orders it, with a nice char that seals in the rendered fat, and brushed with butter and more beef fat on its glistening crust. Look, you’ll probably die if you have more than one in a three-month period, but fuck, it’s delicious. Mostly, though, what one consumes at Delmonico’s is a connection — however tenuous — to the past. This temple of the Gilded Age still glimmers fetchingly, seductively.

There’s something quaint and almost wholesome about the luxury here. Especially when compared to the more outré contemporary feeding troughs of the oligarchs — to places like the Grill and the Lobster Club and the Pool Room — dinner at Delmonico’s feels both virtuous and gay. And it’s hard to disagree with Baatz’s answer about our fascination. If this is what the Gilded Age was, no wonder we like it. But of course, like everything seen through the looking glass of time, beware the distortion. For this is what the Gilded Age looked like only to a few.

The story told in The Girl on the Velvet Swing warns against the sanding of history’s rough edges. It is the tale of how one man’s success at catering to the tastes of the Gilded Age demigods gave him cover to drug and rape a child and how, more troublingly, after a brief period in the wilderness after his murder, his reputation was revived in the mid-century. Now, viewed solely through his work, from the Bowery Savings Bank to the Washington Square Arch to the Metropolitan Club, is heralded as a paragon of virtue. Those marble facades are bones of the Gilded Age, bleached but still cursed.

Dismayingly, the book couldn’t be more timely, not just for how it describes how great men act with impunity but for how close we teeter to another Gilded age. As Baatz reminds me, if we hanker for a return to the days of unbridled wealth, when men stuffed themselves with foie gras and steak while children starved in unheated tenements just blocks away, we needn’t hanker much longer. “There’s tremendous prosperity in this country, but the prosperity isn’t spreading out,” says Baatz. He tucks into the Baked Alaska, a burnt orb of meringue enshrouding a scoop of banana ice cream. “We’re headed right back into another Gilded Age.” He pauses to lick a tuft of meringue that clings to his lower lip, lets out a sigh that is half pleasure and half resignation, and says, “Bon appétit.”

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