Our 10 Best NYC Restaurants of the Last Two Centuries
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.