Delmonico’s Celebrates the First Women’s Power Lunch in 1868
The nation’s first white tablecloth restaurant, the first to seat guests at their own separate tables and to provide printed menus.
By Marian Betancourt
When it opened in 1837 Delmonico’s in New York’s financial district was the nation’s first white tablecloth restaurant, the first to seat guests at their own separate tables and to provide printed menus. It is also the origin of classic American dishes such as Lobster Newburg, Eggs Benedict, and, of course, the boneless rib eye steak that bears its name. Another first, however, may be even more important. In 1868 Delmonico’s was the first restaurant to allow women to dine without a male escort. The Delmonico Brothers took a bold step when they agreed to host the first women only business luncheon and now the restaurant is celebrating this by establishing an annual Women’s Power Lunch for ten days each April. Here’s how it all came about.
Jane Cunningham Croly was an experienced editor and widely published journalist when she and other professional women applied for tickets to the New York Press Club dinner at Delmonico’s honoring Charles Dickens that year. The Press Club Leadership (which included Croly’s husband, also an editor) thought they had to be joking, for women could never attend such a prestigious event.
This so offended the women, that a month later they founded their own club, the first organization in America dedicated to raising women’s status. They called themselves the Sorosis Club from a botanical term referring to plants with a grouping of flowers that bore fruit. It was meant to symbolize women’s determination to transform supposedly delicate and feeble ladies into important members of public society. (Today, of course, the name brings to mind liver disease.) Mrs. Croley asked Lorenzo Delmonico if her group could use his place to gather for lunch. Lorenzo, a nephew of the founding Delmonico Brothers, managed the restaurant at the time and it was his disposition to welcome everyone, so he graciously put a private dining room at their disposal. Sitting down to lunch at Delmonico’s was the club’s first victory.
Sorosis inspired the formation of similar clubs across the country at a time when there were no women’s clubs of any kind, not even bridge or garden clubs. They championed women’s issues. One Sorosis gathering debated the question: Do business pursuits improve women mentally, morally, socially and physically? One of their most prominent members, Emily Warren Roebling, who carried out the engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge for her disabled husband Washington Roebling, wrote in a letter to her son, “Those on the affirmative side of the question comfortably annihilated the unfortunates who had the negative.”
Delmonico’s annual power lunch for women will feature a different female chef each April. This year’s inaugural featured guest chef Patti Jackson, of Michelin starred restaurant Delaware and Hudson in Williamsburg, who created some modern takes on dishes that were served in 1868: rabbit terrine with wild dandelion, farmer’s cheese dumplings with flowering wild mustard, and Long Island duck breast with rhubarb and celery pecan gratin. Dessert was lemon and passion fruit fool with coconut meringues.
Classic and Contemporary
Delmonico’s is featured on the cover of the 2016 book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman, who described it as setting the standard for fine dining in America. More than a century before modern chefs coined the phrase farm-to-table, the Delmonico brothers had their own farm in Williamsburg Brooklyn to supply fresh produce for the restaurant. Charles Ranhofer, the French chef who ran the kitchen from 1862 to the 1890s created some of the famous recipes that are still on the menu today, such as Baked Alaska, a dome of baked meringue atop an almond cake created to honor the purchase of the Alaska territory.
While retaining its classic 19th century steakhouse décor with chandeliers, wainscoting and walls adorned with genre paintings, today’s kitchen, under the direction of Executive Chef Billy Oliva, has modernized the classics and added new dishes, also with locally sourced ingredients, changing the menu four or five times a year.
You may find an appetizer of hamachi tartar with radish slaw and seasonal melon has just enough heat to make your sinuses twitch. Delmonico Steak, of course, is the most popular dish at dinner (fish wins at lunchtime). You can have your steak prepared au poivre, coated with coarsely ground black pepper or you may choose steak Oscar with sauce Bernaise.
In 2012, to honor their 175th anniversary, Delmonico’s opened a small and more casual outlet in midtown called Delmonico’s Kitchen—or DK. Continuing the 1834 legacy of America’s first hamburger steak at Delmonico’s, the juicy DK Double Burger is well-stacked with tomato, onion, cheese, and more. It is speared with a very long toothpick to prevent it from toppling over before you get it into your mouth. Open wide, it’s truly worth the effort.
In addition to its fine cuisine and ambiance, Delmonico’s is one of the most popular settings for television and movie shoots. Not long ago I watched Tom Selleck in his role as Police Commissioner Regan in TV’s Blue Bloods, get shot there after dining with friends.
Delmonico’s is a timeless destination, which has retained its first rate status for nearly two centuries. It is indeed a New York state of mind.
(And mark your calendar for the Women’s Power Lunch next April.)
Delmonico’s , 56 Beaver Street, New York, NY 10004
Marian Betancourt is a contributor to this Everett Potter’s Travel Report and the author of Heroes of New York Harbor: Tales from the City’s Port, published in October by Globe Pequot Press.