Our 10 Best NYC Restaurants of the Last Two Centuries

delmonico.jpg
Delmonico's as it looks today. The columns on either side of the door are said to come from Pompeii.

The modern restaurant as we know it was invented in 1831 south of Wall Street at Delmonico's, based on Swiss and French models. The previous sort of establishment was usually a hotel dining room with limited dinner choices; a coffeehouse that offered tea sandwiches, pastries, and sometimes a set meal or two; and eating houses that made the food-fight scene in Animal House look tame.

These types of venues held down the lower end of the dining spectrum (the wealthy had their own cooks, the poor ate at home or in the streets), and a meal at any of these places was likely to occur in a hubbub. Further discomfited by sometimes having to stand, eaters were expected to finish their meals in 20 minutes or less, just like at franchise fast-food restaurants today. There was nothing relaxing about eating in a New York restaurant before the advent of Delmonico's, and it was enough to give you indigestion.

But suddenly fine dining hit town. A meal occurred at a more leisurely pace; the table was set with fine napery and crystal, and the bill of fare offered a bewildering number of choices. At first the menu was mainly French and prix fixe, but gradually it became à la carte, meaning you had lots of choice to make, and it included other cuisines besides French as waves of immigrants influenced American gastronomy. By 1900, you could get German, Irish, Middle Eastern, and even Chinese food, all in a single fine-dining establishment.

Following are the 10 best restaurants the city has seen in the last two centuries. These are the places that, in their own times, exhibited the most buzz and had the best food. We don't include restaurants that have made their reputations in the last 10 years -- such as Eleven Madison Park, Jean Georges, Masa, and Per Se -- nor do we include places that fall short of being a true restaurant as defined by the Delmonico brothers (Di Fara, Trattoria D'Alfredo, the Automat, and Sripraphai, that leaves you out!). These restaurants are upscale, too, since few records exist of any but the most expensive places.

The restos are presented chronologically, but in order to not cop out on our promise to say which are the best, a ranked list is provided on the last page. We are indebted to many sources, including dozens of restaurant review books by Malcolm Forbes, Craig Claiborne, Seymour Britchky, Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, and many others; to the New York Times online archive; to the New York Public Library Picture Collection; to The Encyclopedia of New York City; to the WPA Guide to New York; to Food and Drink in America by Richard Hooker; to countless period cookbooks; to On the Town in New York by Michael and Ariane Batterberry; and, of course, to Wikipedia.


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15 comments
Ethel
Ethel

Very interesting article! I found a list of NY Restaurants here: List What do you think about this ratings und reviews?

Ashley_Kennedy
Ashley_Kennedy

I looked for them on eat24hours. We order almost every day launch to the company (getting also cash back ;) - Do they have delivery? Someone knows?!

goatghost
goatghost

You forgot "Mama Leone's". It was a fixture in Italian dining for many years.

Save
Save

No: Quilted Giraffe?'Original' Palm'Original' Shun LeeKing Dragon'Original' Russian Tea RoomWindows on the WorldMcMullensOdeonThe TerraceVeau D'OrTre AmiciChrist CellaWater ClubCote BasqueGrenouille

DW
DW

Peter Luger. Defined NY as the steak capital of the world. Just as good as ever...

Rodney Myrvaagnes
Rodney Myrvaagnes

Henri Soule was not a chef. He was a brilliant restaurateur who knew how to hire the best chefs he could find, and he acted as Maitre d' in the dining room. Pierre Franey was the chef at Le Pavillon for many years.

I was in a cab going to LaGuardia when a 10 AM newscast announced the death of Henri Soule. How many people would rate a mention in a 5-minute newscast in NY?

StephenJay
StephenJay

A marvelous stroll through New York culinary history. Bravo!

As one who had the great luck to dine many times, for both lunch and dinner, at Lutece in the mid and late 70s, it is a delight to see Andre's warm smile again. I may be prejudiced, but its great combination of service and ambiance, with perfect preparation and presentation, leads me to place it as high as Daniel, the only other one of your top five that I can comment directly about.

pd
pd

And no Le Cirque????

Pleasepleasenomore
Pleasepleasenomore

Maybe it's time to consider a ban on restaurant listicles for a while when you have to reach into history in order to keep churning them out. Just because you can reliably draw a crowd of indignant listicle-savants with things like this doesn't make it a good idea.

JNYC28
JNYC28

You have to be profoundly ignorant of the history of American cooking, or simply being provocavtive for provocation's sake, not to put Delmonico's at the top of this list. You could reasonably argue that it was the most influential restaurant in the world.

NS
NS

Nice job on misspelling Le Bernardin, and it's baffling that you'd choose Daniel over it:

LE BERNARDINOpened in 1986First high-end seafood restaurant in NYCLeader in the sustainability movementNYT four star rating for 25 consecutive yearsMichelin three star, 2006-2011

DANIELOpened in 1993Started with only a NYT two star rating in a savage 1993 review*Michelin two star, 2006-2009; Michelin three star, 2010-2011

Daniel over Lutèce is laughable as well.

*http://query.nytimes.com/gst/f...

JK
JK

I agree. Bob, stop posting lists until you find one that can please every dickhead who ever posted a comment on the internet.

Jerkspotter
Jerkspotter

NS why do you sound so angry? Why is it "laughable" or "baffling" when someone has a different opinion than yours?

rsietsema
rsietsema

Thanks for the correction, NS, though can't agree with your preference for Le Bernardin over Daniel -- though both are superb. And place absolutely no stock in the ranking of Michelin.

mirror in your face
mirror in your face

NS is allowed to be angry if he feels so.this american faux anti anger is laughable and baffking at the same time.if people would've been allowed to express their anger freely in this PC country maybe there would've been less shooting.

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