It is often difficult, I find, for people today to grasp the notion that one family, working through several restaurants could change the eating habit of an entire country. But such was the achievement of the Delmonicos in the United States of the last century. Before they opened their first small cafe on William Street in 1823, catering to the business and financial communities of Lower Manhattan, American food could generally be described as things boiled or fried whose purpose was to sustain hard work and hold down alcohol – usually bad alcohol. The Delmonicos, though Swiss, had brought the French method to America, and each generation of their family refined an expanded the experience … The craving for first-rate dining became a kind of national fever in the latter decades of the century – and Delmonico’s was responsible.
I’d seen this happen several times before, in different institutions, but it was no less remarkable on each occasion: the words were like the flow of water over coals, taking away crackling heat and leaving only a steaming whisper, a perhaps momentary but nonetheless effective remission from deep-burning fire.