The Culinary Entrepreneurs of Colonial America- Part 1 Thomas Downing
We continue to celebrate African American History Month by sharing a series article of that focuses on the culinary entrepreneurs that were popular in New York City during the nineteenth century, particularly to understand how and why they were successful as well as to celebrate their achievements. These stories were originally recorded in a collection of documents labeled, “History of Negro Restaurants”, by an unnamed author.
During the 1830s and 1840s, Thomas Downing’s Oyster House was among those held in the highest regard in Harlem, New York. At a time when African Americans still faced the threat of slavery, Downing was able to provide a luxurious experience to his customers which greatly contrasted the mysterious reputation granted to competing oyster cellars. The restaurant was fully carpeted with curtains and an extravagant chandelier to match. Oyster refractories could be found throughout New York at the time but they often occupied dark and crowded basements. Downing’s Oyster House created such a demand for its services that it required double the space of its competitors. Part of what made the establishment so popular was their preparation of the oysters unique to New York’s East River, said to be the largest oysters available. At the time, oysters were very inexpensive and available to virtually due to their abundance but Downing saw an opportunity to cater to the refined tastes of the elite. His celebrated Saddle Rock and Blue Point oysters brought in many customers with large pockets. Among them were public figures and politicians such as William M. Price, the District Attorney at time, in addition to many more who made Downing’ Oyster House one of their favorite hangouts. Downing’s was successful because it was able to provide a unique experience to an elite customer base. Thomas Downing retired with the title, “Prince of Saddle Rock.”