New York's Oldest Restaurants Keep Cooking Despite Centuries of Turmoil

By Janet Upadhye on December 18, 2012 7:48am 

NEW YORK CITY — They've survived fires, floods, The Great Depression, 9/11 and most recently, Hurricane Sandy, to take their places as New York City's oldest and most legendary restaurants.

Among them are Delmonico's, Keens Steakhouse, Katz's Delicatessen, Peter Luger, Bamonte's.

While their compatriot, the Bridge Cafe in Lower Manhattan, was forced to close temporarily after extensive flooding from Sandy, its reported intention to reopen shows the dedication required to make it through more than 300 years of turmoil.

According to a sign outside the historic eatery, the Bridge Cafe will remain closed for two to three months for extensive repairs.

“It’s the oldest commercial wood-frame building in Manhattan,” Adam Weprin, the restaurant's proprietor, told The New York Times.

“Eighty-five to 95 percent of the wood in the basement needs to be replaced. We lost all our refrigeration units, stoves and ovens.”

But there is still a smorgasbord of seasoned restaurants in the city that have survived more than a century each, and their walls guard culinary secrets, epicurean traditions and family recipes that have stood the test of time.

Today, their menus still feature the dishes that made them great:

Delmonico’s

56 Beaver St., Financial District, Manhattan

Delmonico’s, founded in Lower Manhattan in 1837, is the home of many culinary and cultural firsts. According to owner Dennis Turcinovic, Delmonico’s was the first dining establishment in the United States to be called ‘restaurant,’ a French name. It was also the first to use a printed menu, the first to allow women to dine alone and to place tablecloths on dining tables.  Delmonico’s is the birthplace of Baked Alaska, Lobster Newberg, and the enduringly popular Eggs Benedict.

“We have survived fires, the Great Depression, September 11 and most recently Hurricane Sandy,” Turcinovic said. “And we did it because Delmonico’s created classic meals decades ago and they are still on our menu today.”

Delmonico’s Eggs Benedict looks almost identical to when the dish was first served to the restaurant's regular patron, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, in 1860. Customers still ask for the perfectly poached eggs served on brioche with Black Forest ham and a dollop of caviar more than 150 years after their creation.

Turcinovic also asserts that Delmonico’s persists as a New York City legend because it is run like a family business and the staff is genuinely invested in its success.

“Fifty employees were waiting outside the restaurant doors the morning after Hurricane Sandy,” Turcinovic said. “They wanted to know what they could do to help — it was very touching.”

Ten days later, Delmonico’s was open for business.

Keens Steakhouse

72 West 36th St., Midtown, Manhattan

A Keens Steakhouse patron recently shared with the restaurant’s General Manager Bonnie Jenkins a tale about  his grandfather in the aftermath of World War II. Wounded in a hospital bed, the suffering soldier could only think of one thing that would make him feel better.

“He wanted to get a steak at Keens,” Jenkins said the patron told her.

Opened in 1885, Keens is home to the classic mutton chop — a thick bone surrounded by 26 ounces of sheep and flanked with thick fat known as the “lamb bacon.” But according to Jenkins, mutton fell out of fashion after World War II when customers began to prefer younger lamb meat. Keens responded with their version of the lamb chop, a tenderer version of the classic.

But Keens would not part with the dish that put them on the map and Mutton Chops are still on the menu today.

Keens is also known for its collection of churchwarden pipes. From 1885 to 1970, Keens doubled as a pipe club for men. In the earlier days, the fragile clay pipes would break if carried off premise on horseback. So pipes were housed at Keens, only to be smoked when visiting. Nearly 100,000 of those pipes are on display in the restaurant.

When asked why Keens has survived for nearly 130 years, Jenkins quickly responded.

“I think people have a longing to be around spaces and things that have survived the test of time,” she said. “They want to pass though doors where so many souls have been before them.”

Katz's Delicatessen

205 East Houston St., Lower East Side, Manhattan

“We haven’t changed a thing in 125 years,” said fifth-generation Katz's owner Jake Dell.

To Dell, it is the love of tradition that makes Katz's such a magnet for celebrities, tourists and New York City locals. Dell added that another major draw to the deli in the last twenty years is a love for the iconic orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. According to Dell, customers still reenact that scene today. But he doesn’t believe the ecstacy was completely faked.

“You might have the same reaction if you tried our pastrami on rye,” he said.

Dell says that he selects only the most exceptional cuts of beef and meats are cured on site using a slow traditional method for over 30 days. Then in-houses carvers expertly cut the meat to create the perfect deli sandwich.

Franks and beans are also a Katz classic from the Lower East Side days of overcrowding when Katz's served as a “a focal point for congregating.” The classic Friday meal can still be found on the menu served with bread and pickles.

But according to Dell, Katz's customers also come for the feeling they get in the historic deli.

“People come for the food, but they also come for the nostalgia,” he said. “They have an emotional connection to the food.”

Peter Luger

178 Broadway in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Brooklyn’s oldest steakhouse thrives on simplicity. Since its inception in 1887, meat and potatoes is what Peter Luger does best. Through Williamsburg’s waves of immigration, artist influxes, a burgeoning of chic restaurants and a new generation of hip young people, Peter Luger has remained untouched by trends.

“Our secret is that we stay true to who we are,” said owner Jody Storch whose grandfather purchased the restaurant in 1950. “We know what we do well and we have stuck to it all these years.”

Storch said that while the neighborhood has changed, Peter Luger has not.

“My grandfather would roll over in his grave if he saw the neighborhood today,” she said. “But he would still be proud of our Porterhouse.”

The star of Peter Luger’s menu is hand picked by family members on a daily basis.

The hunt for the perfect color, fat conformation and bones takes them from obscure meat markets near the West Side Highway to the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. Once chosen, the meat is then dry aged in an in-house temperature-controlled cooler until it is brought up to the kitchen for broiling.

“We will stay relevant as long as people appreciate a perfectly cooked aged piece of Porterhouse steak,” said Storch.

Bamonte's

32 Withers St. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 718-384-8831 (no website)

Pasquale Bamonte founded Bamonte’s in 1900. More than a century later sisters Nicole, Laura and Lisa Bamonte are set to inherit the restaurant from their father, Anthony. Managed by generations of the same name, this place is the definition of family-run. One of the first Italian restaurants in the city, Bamonte’s predated New York’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s — founded in 1905.

The classic restaurant enjoys a mix of clientele from lively old-timers to New Jersey firemen as well as Williamsburg’s newest resident’s; the young, artful and hip. Patrons tend to come in large groups, spend hours on multiple course meals, and then sit back to loosen their belts and take in the atmosphere.

Walking into the red-velvet dining room is like stepping back in time with crispy white tablecloths, framed paintings, wooden phone booths, original chandeliers and red-jacketed waiters wearing tuxes and wandering around with black trays.

The old-world feel attracted “The Sopranos” producers who filmed several episodes behind its well-worn doors. The veteran chefs, one of which has been at the restaurant for over forty years, are visible through a glass window and prepare classics like Zuppa Di Clams, Homemade Lasagna and Raviolis, Calamari Casserole and Veal Cacciatore With Peppers.

A New York Mag reviewer, Steven A. Shaw, wrote, "Stick to the basic appetizers: clams casino, mussels marinara, and prosciutto with melon. Salads are serviceable, but they just delay the inevitable: Bamonte's gigantic handmade cheese ravioli, in a light tomato-and-meat sauce, are de rigueur, and among the finest available. Lasagna with chicken and spinach, too, is extraordinary."

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