Food, NYC

The restaurant at Astor’s swanky St. Regis Hotel, c. 1905
“God! The restaurants! 
New York has become the Florence of the Sixteenth Century. 
Genius on every corner.” 
                                                    Six Degrees of Separation

“No city in the world is better supplied with restaurants and eating-houses of every kind than New York.” This observation in the 1896 edition of Rand McNally and Co’s Handy Guide to New York City, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Other Suburbs is true today. The city’s reputation as a food lover’s paradise is well earned. From street food to fine dining, the available fare reflects the very city itself in its diversity and energy.

Delmonico’s New York

Former New York Times food critic, William Grimes, provides a fascinating overview of the history of New York restaurants in his book, Appetite City. Grimes traces that history from the omnipresent oyster carts of the late 19th century to the development of hot-shot celebrity chef culture of the New American cuisine years. (“Lunch Hour,” a recent exhibit at the New York Public Library, is a true gem for those interested in New York’s eating history.)

Throughout the city’s history, the fanciest of restaurants have perhaps most captivated people’s imaginations. The world-renowned Delmonico’s, which first opened as a pastry shop in 1827, grew into a powerhouse eatery for the rich and powerful, and later boasted ten locations throughout the city. “To dine at Delmonico’s,” wrote New York Tribune writer George Foster, “two things are requisite: money and French” (New York in Slices, 1850).

Indeed.

The tradition of catering to the palettes of the elite was perhaps first established with Delmonico’s fancy menus and tiptop service that drew wealthy customers into its doors throughout the 19th century.

Status conscious New Yorkers loved anything that granted patrons the air of high culture, and French cooking and service were pure bliss for diners who dreamed of being counted among New York’s famous “400.”

Ritz-Carlton Hotel, NYC, Rooftop Restaurant, 1918

Many decades later, more casual restaurants like Elaine’s, at 1703 2nd Ave and 88th Street, became a kind of modern day Delmonico’s, a hotspot for the glitterati, a place more to see and be seen than, perhaps, to eat. Woody Allen set the opening scene of his film Manhattan at Elaine’s and Billy Joel’s 1978 song “Big Shot” referred to the popular eatery that attracted stars and celebrities of all kinds, but particularly writers such as Truman Capote and George Plimpton.

In the Kitchen at Elaine’s: Andy Warhol with Elaine Kaufman, 1976, photo by Jonathan Becker

Elaine’s closed in May 2011, but in the years after its opening in 1963, restaurants around the city had taken an extraordinary turn towards the more complicated, the more expensive, and the more rarefied. New Yorkers just might need some help to navigate this new “haute eating scene,” as food critic Gael Greene described it. In the April 13, 1970 issue of New York Magazine, she offered advice on “How Not to Be Humiliated in Snob Restaurants.”

Snob restaurants, NYC: Everyone’s a critic

In 1992, the insatiable taste for the ultimate in the “food experience” was spoofed in the brilliant play, Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare (the film followed in 1993). In a postmodern re-telling of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the play parodies the wealthy class’ curious quest for ever more and ever better. When the upper east side couple, the Kittredges, brag about the newest hot restaurant, Louisa Kitteridge exclaims, “They wrap ravioli up like salt water taffy!” Her husband dryly adds, Six on a plate for a few hundred dollars.”

A most unusual NY dining experience?: cooking in the kitchen, with Will Smith

After a man (posing as Sidney Poitier’s son) shows up and charms the well-to-do snobs with various ploys, they decide with self-satisfied glee to do the unthinkable in NYC: to “eat in” rather than spend hundreds of dollars on their regular evening restaurant dinner.  (First, though, they must clear the formal dining room table of its clutter and the con man cooks them a masterful feast out of nothing more than what is in the refrigerator.)

Sirio Maccioni and Sons, 1986

Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque, which first opened in the Mayfair Hotel in 1974 and later spawned numerous satellite restaurants, was followed by many others of its kind (see Gael Greene’s list), catering to the expense accounts of the rich and richer. In 1993, NYT food critic Ruth Reichl famously demoted the restaurant by knocking off one star from its rating in her famous double review: one written by her, the famed (and recognized) critic and the other by an “unknown diner” who received less than gracious treatment. Reichl, who was known to don disguises when in the process of reviewing restaurants, would later be spoofed in the film, Dinner Rush (2000), when the “star chef” food-seduces a restaurant critic, played by Sandra Bernhard, who, donning an obvious wig, delights in the genius of his food.

Dinner Rush, Behind the Lines: In a TriBeCa kitchen

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before all this hoopla would result in a reality television show following the opening of a new eatery (at 15 East 22nd St.) by celebrity chef, Rocco DiSpirito. The show, called simply, The Restaurant, aired on NBC for two seasons in 2003. The restaurant closed in 2004, but not before the cameras captured a very public and sometimes contentious disagreement between DiSpirito and his investor, NY restauranteur, Jeffrey Chodorow. Rocco was ultimately barred from his very own restaurant, and once the show was over and the crowds gone, a banner hanging outside read: “The Cameras Have Left the Building.”

Chef DiSpirito made his name at Union Pacific before becoming a TV star

But, for those still seeking all the drama of the overpriced plate of food, fear not. There is still “genius on every corner” in NYC, from Wylie Dufresne’s palace of molecular gastronomy (WD-50) to Per Se, Thomas Keller’s Columbus Circle restaurant.

Keller, of French Laundry fame, offers a $295 prix fixe dining experience (there is a menu, of course, but the website refers to a “menu approach”), and now diners can make their own reality TV show by filming their own food experience at Per Se: watch one diner’s review.

The search for the perfect meal has taken many to Brooklyn, where, at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, only 18 lucky diners per service are allowed to sit at a counter as 20+ tiny plates of food are served–all for  $225 per person (wine and service not included).

Modern Day Lunch Counter: Diners at Brooklyn Fare

“Dining in New York is like other forms of religious worship,” Rupert Hughes wrote in The Real New York (1904). “There’s something for every taste.” Hughes’ observation is true enough today, with one slight alteration: perhaps dining in New York is a form of religious worship.

~Jenny Thompson

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