Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Dining in Prospect Park

Brooklyn, New York

Brooklyn’s pastoral Prospect Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects who created Central Park and Riverside Park in Manhattan. Opened in 1867, Prospect Park was substantially complete in 1873 when a financial panic halted further development. Some of the originally-envisioned structures, such as a terraced restaurant, were never built. Instead, two of the existing buildings were utilized for food service. The park was restored in the 1890s during the City Beautiful movement, and it was during this period that the park commissioner decided to appoint a new concessionaire. His goal was to make the restaurants more “fashionable” while still maintaining low prices for the general public. The recent discovery of two menus from about 1897 reveal what this plan looked like when put into action.

The  commissioner awarded the 5-year contract to Pompeo Maresi, then one of the city’s most successful caterers. The Italian-born caterer worked as a waiter before starting his own business in 1881 with the money he saved. By 1890, Maresi had offices in Manhattan and in Brooklyn where he lived. His reputation was such that he won the contract for $500 per year, well below the annual fee paid by the preceding operator. 

The menu below comes from an old building in the 
park called the Farm House. It offers a modest selection of sandwiches, egg dishes, and French and American ice creams. Beefsteaks and mutton chops were only available on the weekends at this eatery, which may have operated more like a refreshment stand. 

The nicest place to eat was Shelter House. The newspapers sometimes referred to it as “Flower Shelter House” due to its location in the flower garden. The floral setting was “a lovely spot” according to the inscription on the postcard shown at the top. While the price levels are the same, this seasonal menu includes oysters and features an extensive wine list.

Despite the improvements in cuisine, Shelter House failed to attract the upper echelons of society for its special events. The stylish dinner dances that the park commissioner once envisioned never came to pass. 

1. Pompeo Maresi died in January of 1900 at the age of 58.
2. My thanks to Bill Hogan and to the Mudd Library for their assistance.


Jan Whitaker said...

Nice find! I am wondering what the difference between French and American ice cream was.

Rich Newman said...

Reading these menus makes me long for the days when food was freshly prepared at ordinary restaurants, versus what we have today. In perusing the wine list, I thought it was curious that the “QT” prices were lower than those of the “PT” prices. My guess is that “QT” meant “quarter of a quart” (or half pint). Thanks for a fine article!