Girl Meets Lunch
At the Boys Club, Delmonico's
By Rasha Refaie
Having a lunch reservation at Delmonico's makes me worry about my shoes, my demeanor. It is a storied place associated with elegance and fancy people. I like going to Restaurants Where You Have To Look Nice, but I can't stand wearing heels anymore. I head for Delmonico's wearing my usual hightop sneaker boots.
There is good reason for my cultural baggage about appearance and behavior. Historically -- and Delmonico's is nothing if not historic -- having a nice lunch was a rebellious act for a woman. In New York City at the start of the 20th century, nice lunches were for men. A working girl's lunch was a ham sandwich at best, but usually more like a handful of candy from the candy store, or a cup of tomato bouillon with a few crackers, or a slice of spice cake and milk. That's according to Repast, by Michael Lesy and his wife Lisa Stoffer (a marvelous book I wish I could just endlessly quote here, especially from chapter three, "Her Food"). These women weren't earning enough to eat anything more, and they weren't allowed to be customers at better establishments like Delmonico's without a male escort.
In 1908 a New York State assemblyman introduced a bill proclaiming that "women, whether alone or accompanied by escort, shall be entitled to equal accommodations with men at hotel, restaurants..." But despite the new law, restaurant managers weren't fully on board. Said the then Delmonico's night manager, when asked by a New York Times reporter about serving unaccompanied women: "Oh, no, we discourage it. But if the lady is known to us, it is all right." When asked to define a lady, he replied, 'Well, a lady is one you can tell easily. You can tell by the way she sits, by the way she orders, by the way. Oh, man, a lady is a lady, don't you see?'"
My shoes say I am no lady. But I give a nod to the old days and make sure I have a male escort for this lunch.
I have walked by the iconic entrance, that rounded corner of the Renaissance Revival building, many times, but this is my first occasion to pass through the twin marble columns and find a hostess greeting me from behind her impressive podium. The dining room sprawls out in front of me: white tablecloths; wallpaper in an old-fashioned pattern, hung with pleasant paintings that look like they're trying to be Renoir-y; the carpet a bit dizzying with its near fleur-de-lis pattern in pale gray and navy colors. The hostess is about to seat us at a middle table, but since lunch rush is over she offers us a corner banquette. The fabric has sort of an Art Deco pattern of varying grays, black and whites.
As we're a bit late for lunch, there are only a couple of tables reminiscent of the old boys club atmosphere. Four or five guys in high finance having lunch together, all of them making probably $30,000 a day in my humble estimation (it's probably more). There they sit, eating lunch in their expensive-looking suits, just like they might have a hundred years ago, making important decisions about how to ruin the world, which is what they're paid to do.
I don't make nearly enough money even to be looking at the menu, so I feel special sitting in the booth with my "escort" and taking the first sip of my Prosecco, which is outrageously delicious. It's dry and crisp, and makes me feel like I'm on the verge of owning a yacht if I just have a few glasses more.
The menu has a lot of steak options, for which the restaurant has always been famous, and of course there's the Delmonico's invention, Lobster Newberg. I can't resist the charred swordfish because it is described as "Sicilian lifeguard style." I don't know what that means, but it sounds like exactly what I want. The description also mentions "fennel pollen." This, too, is something I previously didn't know existed. My lunch companion selects the "living greens" salad and the blue crab cake with green tomato jam, avocado crema and yellow chili oil.
We have no idea what to expect. Delmonico's has had an ordeal of a history. The Delmonico brothers started out with a small cafe nearby on William Street in 1827. In 1837 they built the first Delmonico's Restaurant, at the site of the one where I sit. Back then it was known colloquially as "The Citadel." In 1891 they rebuilt on the same spot, and that's the building I'm in. So Delmonico's has been at this corner since 1837 and in this very building since 1891. It has gone through various owners over the years; the current owners took it over in 1999. There were also at least half a dozen other Delmonico's locations from downtown up to 44th Street & 5th Avenue in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Along with a lot of owners and locations, Delmonico's has a lot of ghosts. Two of those specters are Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee, or "Tennie." Victoria started out a spirit medium in Ohio and came to New York in 1868, where she achieved several firsts for women in America, including being the first female candidate for President of the United States. Not long after arriving, Victoria gave the wealthy old Cornelius Vanderbilt – known as The Commodore – stock market forecasts that proved to be quite accurate. She told him she'd gotten the tips from her spirit guides, but actually many came from a network of female friends she and Tennie cultivated in the city's brothels that were frequented by finance guys (insert raucous laughter here). In today's money, the Commodore made more than two million dollars from her advice, and used some of it to help Victoria and Tennie to start Woodhull, Claflin & Co., the first woman-run brokerage firm in Wall Street history. Men showed up to stare, though some actually sought financial advice. A separate entrance admitted women investors, most of them investing for the first time. It was a huge success.
Still, as women the sisters weren't allowed on the floor of the stock exchange – and they weren't allowed in Delmonico's, either. Proprietor Lorenzo Delmonico refused to seat them without a male escort. Tennie went outside and fetched a coachman -- who also, under normal circumstances, would never have set foot in the place. Mr. Delmonico gave in and seated them, and they promptly ordered tomato soup for three.
I pretend for a millisecond that their ghosts are at the next table, and lift my glass to them in a secret toast. My lunch wouldn't be possible today without them.
The salad appears. The dressing tastes clean, light, as if it's doing everything it can not to steal the limelight from the "living greens." I want the radishes to have more sting, but they're still good and crunchy. The salad feels beautiful, like I just lost five pounds eating it but am luxuriating and spoiled and lavished-upon nevertheless. From the bread basket I pinch an adorable pumpkin mini-muffin that is fluffy and sweet. I don't put any butter on it, because I never put butter on anything.
Then my swordfish arrives. There is broccoli rabe on top of the fish, as well as two giant capers, and it is served with pearl couscous mixed with chopped vegetables in a thin tomato broth. I love pearl couscous. It's like popping bubble wrap, getting all those tiny pudgy globes of pasta and squishing them in my teeth. The fish is perfection. I haven't had swordfish in possibly decades, and I didn't have the courage to ask if this swordfish was sustainably sourced. I know there's a lot of illegal fishing of swordfish that depletes their population, and that is not acceptable. I imagine the power-suited men at the nearby table forming a circle of shame around me if I ask the staff about sustainability, mocking me for caring about swordfish populations while they earn $30,000 in the time it takes me to squirm in my seat.
The broccoli rabe has a strong bitter flavor that balances the dish. And the fennel pollen is…ethereal. It only appears here and there, but when it does, it adds a subtle but spicy kick. Even the crab cake is the real thing, more crab than cake (which for New York is saying a lot – usually it's the other way around).
My Delmonico's lunch destroys all other possible future lunches, and makes them look pathetic. I have another glass of the Prosecco For Yacht Owners and finish my plate clean. I'm full as hell and so glad it isn't 1900, and I don't have to eat daintily, and I don't need to subsist on a handful of candy for lunch, and I could eat here alone if I wanted to. Not that I could afford it.
Grinning widely, I overthank the excellent servers, like I know I shouldn't be experiencing any of this and have gotten away with a magnificent crime.
Published May 15th, 2016
Rasha Refaie has written for The Normal School Magazine, Newsday, New York Press, and others. She lives in the East Village.