The risk in reading William Grimes’s vivid new book, Appetite City (North Point Press), is that you might become convinced that the most exciting days of dining out in New York City may be behind us.
Grimes, a former Times restaurant critic, traces the colorful and raucous history Big Apple restaurants from early 19th century to the present day. Using first-person accounts of the people who dined and worked at establishments both high and low, he makes it plain that success in the New York restaurant scene has often been as much about showmanship as about food, and it has rarely come to the faint of heart.
His considerable depth of research yields a long list of energetic pioneers: Thomas Downing, a free black man from Virginia whose ever-expanding oyster palace made him a fortune out of the pockets of 1840s financiers and power brokers; Charles Rector, who took good food seriously, but whose Broadway emporium drew so many spats-wearing big spenders and ambitious chorus girls that married men would not tell their wives they had dined there; John Murray, who invented the theme restaurant with Murray’s Roman Gardens on 42nd Street, where decorations included “an enormous Roman barge fit for Cleopatra” and so many mirrors that “gaping patrons often walked straight into their own reflections.”
Grimes writes with wit and intelligence, reminding us that some distinctly New York additions to dining out in America are still with us, from obligatory tipping to velvet ropes. Others are remembered fondly, like the automat (which came from Philadelphia, but nobody knew about before it was in Manhattan) and rooftop gardens at the grand hotels, where New Yorkers escaped the summer heat in the years before air conditioning.
Even hallmarks of forward-thinking contemporary restaurants turn out to have been in use long ago: The legendary Delmonico’s had a 220-acre farm in what is now Williamsburg. Other elements of the Manhattan scene, like dinners on horseback in a private dining room at Sherry’s, or the somewhat louche set known as “tango pirates” (and who wouldn’t like to have at least known one?), have faded from living memory, but come to life again in Grimes’s riveting retelling.
There are literally hundreds more stories in Appetite City (including a revealing self-analysis of Grimes’s years as the Times reviewer) that offer readers a chance to participate in the evolution of one of the world’s great restaurant centers.
Photo courtesy of North Point Press.