Restaurants and the City

Eating at a restaurant on the verandah, 19th century
My favorite thing to make for dinner is reservations.
—My mother-in-law
(This is a lie. She will never make the call herself.)

Schwartz's Restaurant, 1936. A vertical sign tucked in with the skyscrapers of downtown near Wall Street.
Schwartz’s Restaurant, 1936

Restaurants didn’t always exist, not even in New York City, which has long been one of the gastronomic capitals of the world.

As the city grew in the 19th century, through the Industrial Revolution, the way people lived and worked experienced a cultural shift that still plays out today.

Circumstances, gender, and social status played roles in shaping the early days of the free-standing, fixed menu eatery.

Before the Restaurant

In the 17th and 18th centuries, whether in New York, England, or Europe, people gathered at public houses, taverns, and coffeehouses for food, drink, and conversation. And by conversation, I really mean arguments. This was the Age of Enlightenment when ideas abounded and not everyone agreed with each other. Which was a good thing for progress.

Unless you were French nobility.

The French Revolution

French restaurant with tables set out on the sidewalk.
Boulevard du Montparnasse, Restaurant Le Dome, Paris

Food for thought: The birth of the restaurant — the very idea of a fixed or rotating menu, private tables, and fine food — came about because of the French Revolution.

When aristocratic heads rolled, chefs in Paris found themselves with no mouths to feed. Without work, they set a fresh course for America and established the first restaurants in New York. By 1810, the city listed five in its directory. By 1830, restaurants were keeping pace with the growing city. Eventually New York City would become the “gastronomic capital of the United States.” [Lobel]

Meanwhile…

Before the “Parisian” model of the restaurant, if one didn’t go to a public space for a meal, it was common to go home to eat. That meant going to the back room of a shop or above stairs. Both of which were in their homes.

Genteel ladies and children gathered around the counter of an ice cream parlor being waited on by a young man. There is one customer gentleman in the background wearing a top hat and suit. Coca-cola branding.
Ice Cream Parlor — a safe space for ladies and children

New options for a midday meal included oyster cellars, saloons, ice cream parlors, ladies’ restaurants, fine dining, grog shops, and “cheap and nasty” eating houses.

However, the most striking aspect of this time — to me — regarding public meals and drink was that eating houses were mostly male domains, unless a woman was either accompanied by a man, or the woman was not a lady. *

Gendering Public Spaces

Ladies

It eventually occurred to savvy entrepreneurs that women might want spaces of their own. If they couldn’t freely visit restaurants or saloons, they should have spaces to ensure that:

… ladies would feel little threat to their bodies or reputations. [Lobel]

A. T. Stewart owned theaters, hotels, and department stores catering to women. Ladies, after shopping at his department store, would stop by Taylor’s Epicurean Palace a few blocks down the road. It was so popular it served food to 3,000 guests a day! Both Stewart and Taylor thought to take the spaces men inhabited, but clean them up and remove the unsavory parts for:

… a more decorus (sic) and controlled manner of interaction between strangers. [Lobel]

A large dining room with thick marble columns between the decorative ceiling and carpeting. Tables of four seats are spread throughout.
Ladies’ Dining Room, Astor Hotel

These dining rooms gave rise to rules of society that not only policed these spaces, but kept the “unsavory” populace from disturbing their meals.

Our wives and sisters may visit without being compelled to mingle with miscellaneous society. [Lobel]

Where it had been improper for a woman of refinement to enter a public eating house, feeding ladies became a lucrative business. Some restaurants allowed mixed dining by the middle of the 1800s, other arranged special accommodations for separate entrances, and some, depending on their location, became completely identified as women’s spaces. [Burrows]

Some public dining establishments denied access to respectable women because of their locations: if women needed to climb the stairs to arrive or leave, they’d have to lift their skirts and show off their ankles!!! Hence the need for a separate entrance. Others had policies prohibiting women from entering to keep out any and all prostitutes, regardless of their true status.

There weren’t many women who leaped for the chance at building their own businesses during this period. They either couldn’t afford to step away from their responsibilities at home, or if they were wealthy enough for servants, society considered “work” demeaning. However, for men, lunch became a pivotal portion of the workday.

Gentlemen

Delmonico's corner/wedge-shaped building.
Delmonico’s, Beaver and South William Streets, 1893

As capitalism fueled the Industrial Revolution, business owners didn’t want their employees to take leisurely midday meals at the risk of losing profits, which was likely to happen if they ate in a place that encouraged lengthy debates among friends (i.e., 18th century coffee houses). The Sixpenny Houses, where food was cheap, nasty, and fast, were eateries workers could afford and get back to work quickly.

Men of power chose restaurants like Delmonico’s for its fine dining, privacy, and exclusivity. They brokered deals and discussed politics over many a Manhattan clam chowder and steak. These were leisurely, gluttonous meals in direct opposition to what they expected from their workers.

Diversity

From the end of the American Revolution to the middle of the 1800s, the population of New York City grew eight-fold, reaching 800,000, many of whom were immigrants. In a future post, I’ll explore the advent of Chinese restaurants, Jewish delicatessens, and other ethnic foods deeply rooted in the cobblestone streets of New York.


Footnotes

* Of course, female publicans and the like existed. It wasn’t unusual for a husband to bequeath his business to his wife. This was a perfectly acceptable occupation for a widow.

Sources

1. Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 

2. Lobel, Cindy R. ““Out to Eat”: The Emergence and Evolution of the Restaurant in Nineteenth‐Century New York City.” Winterthur Portfolio 44, no. 2/3 (2010): 193-220. Accessed June 24, 2021. doi:10.1086/654885.

3. Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Images

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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