New York is a city of many things, restaurants among them. Today the city’s blocks are concentrated with eating establishments—fancy, fast, casual, fast casual, casual fast—that the options can dizzy even the most scrupulous of restaurant-goers. Apps like Yelp and Google Maps help us parse the selection, but this wasn’t always the case.
Before there were oceans of digitally broadcasted opinions to wade through, urbanites turned to written restaurant reviews. Bound by newspaper, these reviews sought to make sense of the wide array of eateries, to help customers decide where best to spend their hard-earned money.
The art of the restaurant review dates back to France, where the very first restaurant is thought to have originated. In the mid-19th century, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière (how’s that for a name? ) published his Gourmands’ Almanac, a highfalutin guide to the region’s best eateries.
Today, Sam Sifton, Food Editor at The New York Times, included in his email newsletter a link to what has to be one of the oldest restaurant reviews in existence. Published on January 1, 1859, the article, titled “How We Dine,” is penned by a writer referred to only as “The Strong-Minded Reporter of the Times.”
The unnamed critic is tasked, by their editor-in-chief, to scour the city for all sorts of dining establishments, making sure to frequent a spread that would speak to the variety of options New York has to offer. Long before the rise of modern-day “foodie” culture and the proliferation of the restaurant as accessible public space, the assignment feels like a dream one: “All nature seemed to smile upon me, and I resolved to do my duty and throw myself at once into the dining saloons everywhere.” Just like that, they begin their quest.
In many ways, the review reads like an anthropological survey, a peek into the minutiae of an older, less familiar New York, before cars clogged Broadway and fruit stalls lined the sidewalks. The writer starts by dining at some of the city’s swankiest restaurants—Delmonico’s, where they claim “no nobleman of England was ever better served or waited on in greater style,” still stands today. Later in the review, the reader is welcomed into working-class dining halls, where the din of waiters hawking orders feels almost palpable. The writer’s glasses fog from the grease and condensation of all the sweaty bodies enjoying their meals after work. At another establishment, the utensils are chained to the tables and one diner, whose dog sits underfoot, uses the shaggy fur as a stand-in napkin.
In one particularly memorable scene, the writer describes Taylor’s Saloon, a mid-level restaurant, like a Liberace fever dream come to life:
You are fairly dazzled with light when you go in, and you sit on velvet cushions with a mirror behind you and another one directly opposite, in which you see a million perspective copies of yourself. (I found it a most agreeable subject of contemplation.) A fountain bubbles up in the centre of the great hall; angels in plaster support innumerable lights, which illuminate hundreds of angels in hoops.
In other moments (the most interesting moments for me), the writer’s scenes bristle with a haunting modernity. So much of what they describe—from a fear of snide servers to a frustration with people who don’t take time to savor a flavor—continues to ring true today. As restaurant criticism moves further from the pen of one and into the palms of many, it’s descriptions like this that remind us just how far we’ve come.