A Londoner visiting New York in the early 1800s would have found a city which, from a dining out point of view, was rather like home. Simple English-style chophouses and taverns predominated, and menus were still priced in shillings and pence!
Two centuries later, many of the similarities between the two cities are once again as striking as the differences. Indeed, a growing number of brands nowadays straddle both pillars of Anglo-Saxon capitalism: Orso, Nobu, Palm, Gordon Ramsay, and most recently Le Caprice, to name but five.
So have the two cities pursued similar paths on their routes from similarity to similarity? This new history of New York restaurants – which is, as it happens, the first comprehensive account of the development of the restaurant scenes in either New York or London – suggests not.
We are lucky to have an authoritative chronicler. William Grimes was for half a decade the NY Times’s all-powerful reviewer, which gave him a real day-to day understanding of the restaurant world. Self-admittedly, though, he had always been a man whose mind “wandered to the past”, which is perhaps why he has been able to weave a sprawling story into a cogent narrative in a way that might have defeated other writers.
The tale he tells is of ceaseless invention and re-invention – necessarily, as fashionable New York moved ever further uptown – but of lasting institutions too. None was ever greater than Delmonico’s – the grand French restaurant which, in various incarnations, dominated the top end of the dining-out scene for much of the 19th century
By way of contrast, London was never so dominated by the establishments of a single family, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities here too – the Delmonicos, like many of the leading restaurateurs in Victorian London, were neither French nor ‘Anglo’, but Swiss.
What makes restaurants interesting is often their context, and – on the way through two centuries of restaurant history – we learn much not just about the history of dining out, but also about New York itself. Who, today, would think that Park Avenue was industrial in character until the Grand Central train tracks were electrified, and covered over, around the turn of the 20th century?
It is during the 20th century that the differences between New York – progressively, the more affluent and larger city – and London seem to reach their highest point.
Given the absence of a comprehensive London history, one has to be a little tentative, but we don’t think London in the ’20s had theme restaurants quite like the Cortile, lavishly decorated to resemble an Italian street. And there was certainly never anything here to match Le Pavillon, the seminal great French restaurant of the mid-century. When it was launched, in 1941, we Brits had other priorities.
And, to this day, London has certainly never had anything quite like the Four Seasons (in the Seagram Building, and largely unchanged today). Together with a neighbouring establishment, La Brasserie, it cost a staggering $4.5 million… in 1959.
Described as the city’s “first self-consciously modern restaurant”, the Four Seasons arguably crystalised the concept of the restaurant as Gesamtkunstwerk. If that’s right, the final fully-fledged emergence of the restaurant as many Londoners would understand it today – as a fully integrated artistic concept – can be precisely located to Park Avenue, exactly half a century ago.
That’s just one reason why this book should interest anyone who’d like to understand restaurants, New Yorker or not.
North Point Press $30