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At 180 years old, fine dining icon Delmonico's stays as modern as ever

Opened in 1837 as America's first restaurant, Delmonico's is celebrating 180 years of its famous steaks — and introducing plenty of modern touches to keep the legacy going.

To last 180 years, you have to be doing something right.

That’s the milestone being celebrated at Delmonico’s, the stately Financial District steakhouse that claims the title of America’s first restaurant, and you can’t have a birthday like that without a major celebration.

In the case of executive chef Billy Oliva, it meant reaching out to the culinary luminaries of the city to share a bit of what Delmonico’s means to them — on a plate. The result is a month-long anniversary menu being served from Sept. 14-Oct. 14 with dishes by some of the biggest marquee names in New York cuisine: Daniel Boulud, Michael Lomonaco, Dominique Ansel and more.

“Delmonico’s has been such an influential restaurant for the culinary world and especially here in New York,” he says, counting off Sirio Maccioni (Le Cirque) and Harry Poulakakos (Harry’s Cafe & Steak) as alums, and Thomas Keller (Per Se) as a regular.

Oliva’s pitch was simply, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to ask every chef how Delmonico’s has influenced their cooking or what do they think Delmonico’s brought to the table.”

Oliva himself contributed a prime 180-day dry-aged bone-in ribeye ($380), just the start of a recent obsession he developed after hanging out with Taiwanese celebrity chef and dry-aging evangelist CK Chen.

“The purveyor that I work with actually is in the process of building a cedar and salt room specifically for me,” he says.

“And then we’ll be dry-aging all kinds of stuff — duck, cauliflower, you name it we’re going to dry age it. When I was in Taiwan, we dry-aged some cauliflower and it was awesome.”

Originally opened in 1837, Delmonico’s actually started as a cafe selling pastries, fine chocolates, wine and Havana cigars — doesn’t sound much less decadent than the French-leaning dishes and steaks coming out of the kitchen today.

Oliva took over at what he tactfully recalls as a difficult time in 2009, just a year after the subprime mortgage crisis tanked the Financial District, which was still feeling the economic effects of Sept. 11, 2001.

Born and raised in Westchester, he’d known Delmonico’s by reputation, but the kitchen that was the birthplace of revolutionary dishes like the first Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska and Chicken a la Keene had been in a rough spot for a few years.

 

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He narrowed the menu and refocused on getting the basics right. His team now makes all their bread and most pastas in-house; pastries used to be the job of one part-timer, and now three full-time chefs oversee dessert, including making ice cream. Oliva went from serving 60 dinners on his first Saturday night to over 200 last weekend.

“While we have all those classics that were invented here, we put a new twist on them with every season,” he says.

But keeping the restaurant going for another 180 years requires bigger ambitions: “I don’t want to be known for Chicken a la Keene and Lobster Newburg. I want to be known for what we do now, which is keep it seasonal and change the menu, keep the restaurant current.”

 
 
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