Dining out is an obsession (a religious experience?) for many New Yorkers. For William Grimes, it’s a profession.
As The New York Times restaurant critic since 1999 (when Ruth Reichl decamped to Gourmet magazine) the Maryland native has been shaping the eating experience of urban gourmands. Now he’s lent his expertise to the New York Public Library, curating an exhibition of menus and other ephemera, on view through March 1.
"New York Eats Out" traces dining history from "hot dogs to haute cuisine," beginning with the founding of the city’s first real restaurant, Delmonico’s, in 1827, and ending with Windows on the World, created 36 years ago by Joseph Baum of Restaurant Associates as a "daring experiment" on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. Along the way, Grimes stops at street carts and cafeterias, oyster houses and Automats.
The exhibition draws mainly from menus donated to the library in the 1920s by a single collector, a genteel Upper East Sider named Miss Frank E. Buttolph. A librarian in the Dorot Jewish Division guided Grimes to gems from Jewish eating establishments, such as a menu from a 1915 banquet of the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America; one marking a local celebrity’s return from Palestine in 1911 (boiled salmon and fresh tongue with French peas were served, washed down with siphon seltzers); and a promotion designed as a parody of the Passover Haggadah: "Let all who are hungry and want a nice dinner or supper go to the Vienna Restaurant, 175 East Houston Street."
A menu from Cafe Tel Aviv at the 1939 World’s Fair features Dagg Makiah (a filet of pickled herring) and Hatzilim (eggplants), both dressed in sour cream.
To people whose ancestors received manna from heaven, it may come as little surprise that Jewish cuisine flavored Grimes’ gustatory interests early on. A reed thin man with wispy hair and an affable manner, Grimes nearly tears up as he describes his first visit to a delicatessen on Grubb Street in Silver Spring, taken there as a teenager by family friends.
"I was suddenly surrounded by the sights and smells of this wonderful food": challah, herring, cream cheese and, ah, liver knishes. "I still drool over it," Grimes said.