Monday, August 18, 2008

From whence came Bruni: NY Times' first restaurant review

Delmonico's Restaurant set the standards in fine dining by which future restaurants would be judged. But don't just take my word on it.

In the January 1, 1859 edition of the New York Times, Delmonico's and other eateries of the city were the topic of that paper's very first restaurant review. And the establishment of Lorenzo Delmonico ranked as one of the very best with the Astor House, John Jacob Astor's first hotel venture.

But what I find most interesting about this article are the lesser known eating establishments that those slightly below the 'aristocratic' nature of the article's author, the anonymous "Strong Minded Reporter of the Times."

Taylor's Saloon, at Broadway and Franklin streets and a haunt of one Walt Whitman, gets a not-all-together horrible review, by today's standards, yet it's written in such a condescending manner that it's difficult to tell. "You eat off an elegent little marble table, and the terms are not, as a whole, extravagant."

As a whole, the review is more about the environment and the author's own personal reactions than it is about the food. About Taylor's, Strong-Minded Reporter casually mentioned he had a fine meal but holds a strong objection to the staff. "I do not like to be served by a person in dirty-white habiliments.....I naturally solace myself with the reflection that I am in strictly aristocratic quarters. Why, then, must a waiter, clad like a nightmare, come in and disturb my illusion?"

So you can well assume that his opinion of "mere" eating houses such as Browne's Auction Hotel, on Water Street, would be vitriolic. Instead, the reviewer considers it a worthy but noisy establishment with good food "provided you can eat pastry while you smell pork." His definition of praise? "You will not object to a meal at the Auction Hotel."

The idea of a restaurant review was apparently so novel back in 1859 that the author literally walks his reader though the steps of getting the assignment, including instructions on how he would be reimbursed for his meals. The introduction of the article reads as the start of some fanciful melodrama:

"'I wish you to go and dine, said the Editor-of-Chief to me one day in September last, 'I wish you to go and dine.'"

You can read the whole review here and makes a more enjoyable read if you picture New York's portliest, most ostentatious fop writing it. Kottke also gave this review a closer evaluation last year.

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