Before the 19th century, oysters were street food in New York City. There were also some oyster restaurants, but they were small, crowded basement diners. That changed in 1825 when Thomas Downing opened his Oyster House in the city’s financial district. It was truly fine dining, offering only the freshest and best quality oysters. Downing was born to formerly-enslaved parents on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia, where he grew up harvesting seafood like the rest of his family. His skills served him well in establishing the first fine dining experience in New York. The Oyster House served only white clientele, and was so luxurious that businessmen brought their wives and families to eat there, a practice that was fairly new to restaurants at the time. But Downing’s patrons didn’t know Downing all that well, and certainly didn’t know about the people he was hiding in the restaurant’s basement. Read about the life of the “Oyster King of New York” at Atlas Obscura.
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