The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

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FEB 2010 Issue

A Hearty Spread

William Grimes
Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York
(North Point Press, 2009)

William Grimes ends his book, Appetite City, with a modern-day parable about the nature of the New York culinary world. Fleur De Sel opened in the Flatiron district in 2000, after years of planning by its owner Cyril Renaud. The restaurant was “perfect,” small and romantic with a modest French menu and a passionate chef. “In any other American city,” writes Grimes, “a restaurant of this quality would immediately jump to the top-ten list.” In New York, Fleur De Sel was just one of many, and after nine successful years, the restaurant began to lose business. Diners had moved on to trendier and newer pastures. Fleur De Sel soon closed and Renaud moved on to other projects. He understood that the only way to survive in New York was through constant reinvention. Fleur De Sel is the quintessential New York story: the timeless tale of restaurants that flicker to life, shine madly and brightly and then die with the birth of the next big scene. And if there’s one thing that the reader takes away from Grimes’s book it is that in a city of fleeting public attention and ephemeral trends, good food is never enough to guarantee success.

Appetite City, an expansive, extensively researched book that spans two centuries, dozens of food movements and thousands of restaurants, opens with the slow passing of traditional Dutch life in New York. The year is 1810 and the city’s first few “eating houses”—primitive chophouses and taverns where the fare consists of beef, potatoes, and apple pie—are just beginning to do business. From here on, Grimes —a former food critic for the New York Times—offers a comprehensive account of the city’s eating habits using rare menus, photographs, newspaper stories, and archival records.

In the 1820s immigrants began to flood the city; restaurants multiplied to accommodate the large swathes of single young men who had come to New York in search of work. Eventually New York’s first dining institution—Delmonico’s—was born. The French café, writes Grimes, “brought a whiff of Paris into the crude, bustling streets of a city long on ambition but short on amenities.” Simultaneously, the city’s bustling markets began to develop. Shopping amongst farmers’ stands stuffed with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats was a sensory pleasure that took New Yorkers right to the source of their meals.

Through the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, oysters were New York’s food of choice. Like the pizza of today, they were the great levelers—appealing to poor immigrants and rich aristocrats alike. “At market stands, the New Yorker with a couple of nickels rubbed shoulders with the gay blades known as ‘howling swells.’ In humble cellars and lavish oyster palaces all over the city, oysters were consumed voraciously as long as the oyster beds held out,” writes Grimes.

Despite early comparisons to Paris, New York’s moment in the sun arrived only during the 1870s. From then until the early 1920s, the city enjoyed a culinary renaissance. And it is in Grimes’ coverage of this era that Appetite City sparkles. Peppered with anecdotes, personality profiles, and tales of New York excess, Grimes builds a picture of a city on a perennial high.

He tells us of the cavernous lobster restaurants of the roaring 20s that could cater to 5000 diners at once. The idea of the theme restaurant was born, and Murray’s Roman Gardens, with its 30-foot fountain, columned temple, and enormous Roman barge became the pioneer of an over-the-top restaurant aesthetic that ruled till the Depression. “As an exercise in pure fantasy,” writes Grimes, “Murray’s has never been equaled.” This was a New York of overindulgence, a city characterized by the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots and the hedonistic parties of the rich. Grimes writes about several of the more eye-popping parties—like CK Billing’s equestrian-themed party at Sherry’s (one of the city’s premier restaurants), where guests ate dinner sitting astride real horses. Fittingly, this was the era that created the velvet rope, the cabaret, and the dinner-dance tradition.

Between 1820 and 1920, the city’s entertainment center continually shifted as New York itself slowly stretched upwards. The first few restaurants operated out of downtown Manhattan, but soon the Village took center stage. Next, it was Union Square’s turn to reign supreme, followed by Madison Square. The 1900s signaled the beginning of Times Square’s rule (or Long Acre Square as it was known then), an era that is still to come to an end. Each move sounded the death knell for a host of eateries, but new “it” restaurants quickly took their place—the first signs of the city’s insatiable desire for novelty.

By the end of the 1920s, prohibition was beginning to take its toll on the New York culinary world. The final blow came in the form of the Great Depression and the most decadent phase in the city’s history came to an end. The restaurants got smaller, the lobster palaces gave way to cafes and tearooms and serious dining took a hit.

The city’s next big boom came with the arrival of Joseph Baum in the 1960s. The restaurateur almost single-handedly sparked new life into New York’s enervated entertainment scene. His splashy, gaudy restaurants—like Forum of Twelve Caesars, with its “wine coolers in the shape of Roman helmets, gladiator wall mosaics and imperialized menus and glassware”—were reminiscent of the excesses of the 1920s.

The book ends with the trends of the new century—the focus on showcasing local produce, fusing different cuisines, and experimenting with cooking technology.

Throughout Appetite City, Grimes’s writing is lively and engaging, if slightly indistinctive. He competently narrates the stories of the personalities and restaurants that fill the book’s pages, but the writing lacks the passion and energy that comes from the direct experience of one’s subject.  

Ultimately, Appetite City is not so much a culinary history of an entire city as a description of the dining habits of upper class New Yorkers over the last 200 years. Meticulously researched and filled with fascinating tidbits, it draws a detailed portrait of an industry where diners are easily dazzled, and the nouvelle and the trendy rule. It tells of a fickle and superficial society that is obsessed with food not for food’s sake but as an indicator of social standing. Above all, it speaks of a food culture where change is the norm.

But by focusing almost exclusively on such a select culture, Grimes leaves many readers hungry. At the end of the book, we know much about the Delmonico’s, the 21s and the Colonys of New York, but know next to nothing about the common man’s food—about the pizza and the bagel. Where are the tales of the hot dog and the pretzel? What of newer New York street food like the falafel and the doner kebab? It is here that Grimes’s background as a restaurant critic shows it limitations. This is his experience of New York, his world, filled with Daniel Boulud’s fiddly finger food and Wylie Dufresne’s molecular gastronomy. But the average resident’s New York is different—it is the New York of the corner bagel shop and the neighborhood pizza joint, the friendly sushi place down the street and the taco cart. And it is this easy accessibility to a variety of cuisines, constantly updated by the ceaseless influx of immigrants, which makes this city one of the great eating centers of the world. In failing to recognize that, Grimes has managed to reduce New York to nothing more than a secondary Paris.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

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