The Fresser’s Guide to Wasp Cuisine

TAK Room’s prime-beef short-rib Wellington. Photo: Joe Lingeman

Wasp cooking is a term that most consider either an oxymoron or a punchline. But in his memoir, The Book of Eating, Adam Platt depicts an unexpected epicurean inheritance, fondly recalling the sybaritic tendencies of his Waspy gourmand family. Beyond the stereotypes—bland, anti-foodie, relentlessly mayoed—much of so-called Wasp or country-club food descends from English-influenced Americana and the heyday of French-inspired Continental cuisine. It’s the sort of retro cooking that’s having a bit of a revival around town, and when done well, it’s undeniably delicious. Frozen peas and Wheat Thins aside, here are a few defining dishes and where to get them.

Beef Wellington (above)

A British dish of meat wrapped in pastry, but a helluva lot more impressive than a Cornish pasty. Said meat is typically fillet of beef topped with duxelles. The dish was named after Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, of Napoleon-quashing and tall-rubber-boot fame. Besides him, Richard Nixon, Julia Child, and Don Draper were big fans. At TAK Room, they make it with prime beef short rib, carve it tableside, and give it a superrich pour of périgourdine sauce.


Bemelmans’ martini. Photo: Melissa Hom

Three-martini lunches. “Shaken, not stirred.” Mad Men and The Thin Man. No other cocktail is so thoroughly steeped in the popular American consciousness, nor as associated with the well-chronicled drinking habits of the American Wasp. Though debates regarding proportion, technique, and garnish may never end, the drink is the ultimate classic, best consumed in equally classic surroundings, and few places are as classic as Bemelmans Bar, where the glow is golden no matter the time of day and your drink comes with a sidecar mini-carafe on ice. (Also: the Grill, Pegu Club.)

Prime Rib

The Grill’s prime rib. Photo: Melissa Hom

Of all celebratory cuts of beef, prime rib is the tenderest, juiciest, and Waspiest. Also known as a standing rib roast, it’s as easy to cook as it is impressive to serve: Nothing induces order envy like a great hunk of beef paraded through a dining room, then sliced tableside with all the jolly to-do of a Christmas Day feast in Whoville. The Grill carves its prime rib from a custom-made guéridon and throws in the coveted rib bones which are removed before the meat is cooked, then dry-rubbed and smoked for twelve hours. (Also: the Beatrice InnSmith & Wollensky, TAK Room, and 4 Charles Prime Rib.)

Lobster Roll

Pearl Oyster Bar’s lobster roll. Photo: Melissa Hom

A lobster roll made with a top-loading (ideally Pepperidge Farm) hot-dog bun is the defining alfresco treat for New England clans from Connecticut to Kennebunkport. It is to a Waspy New England summertime what sausage and peppers are to the San Gennaro Feast. In New York, the standard-bearer is Pearl Oyster Bar, not only for its use of Hellmann’s mayo and whole lobster in the salad instead of just claws and knuckles but for the Maine-inspired urban setting. (Also: Mary’s Fish Camp.)

Eggs With Soldiers

Balthazar’s soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers. Photo: Melissa Hom

Is there a more civilized way to eat an egg than to put it in a cute little cup specially designed to hold it accompanied by a tiny spoon and some perfect rectangles of toast for dunking? Egg cups go way, way back, but the first written mention of toast soldiers dates to 1966. Our resident Wasp-food guru Adam Platt remembers his grandmothers serving breakfast eggs this way. “Scrambled eggs were too sophisticated for the old Wasps,” he says. “But they obsessed over boiled eggs and loved their egg cups, just like the Brits.” (At Balthazar.)

Eggs Benedict

There are a few tales as to the origin of eggs Benedict. The best and Waspiest: A Wall Street broker and boulevardier named Lemuel Benedict with a hangover the size of the Brooklyn Bridge checked himself into the restaurant at the Waldorf-Astoria, ordered a DIY plate of buttered toast, bacon, and poached eggs plus a boat of hollandaise, and despite his throbbing head, cotton mouth, and shaky hands, rolled up his sleeves and got down to business. Oscar Tschirsky, the maitre d’hotel of the Waldorf-Astoria, liked what he saw and promptly stole the recipe, swapping out toast for English muffins and regular bacon for the Canadian kind. And that is how the brunch dish to end all brunch dishes was born. (At Balthazar and Sarabeth’s.)

Dover Sole

La Grenouille’s Dover sole. Photo: Melissa Hom

The most regal of the soles, this mild-flavored flatfish is native to the North Sea and named for the port through which it was historically routed to markets. Hereabouts, it’s usually spotted in French guise (à la meunière, grillée with sauce moutarde) at the kind of place that first established its loyal clientele back when fancy French food was the foremost culinary status symbol and Wasps dominated New York society. It’s a signature dish at La Grenouille, which in menu and milieu remains much the same as it was when it opened in 1962.

Chicken Hash

Few recipes reconcile the conflicting characteristics of the Wasp diet as neatly as this one, with its evocations of frugality (leftovers, hash houses), unmitigated comfort (creamy sauce, melting cheese), and clubby high society. Early-twentieth-century “lunching ladies” relished Louis Diat’s version at the Ritz-Carlton, Mimi Sheraton writes in 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, but today, hash hounds find satisfaction at the 21 Club. As far back as post-World War II, according to Michael Lomonaco’s The “21” Cookbook, a Monday-night crowd convened at the former speakeasy post-opera for midnight hash and eggs. There’s sherry in the mix, which doesn’t hurt, and a history of multiple variations based on the special requests of the rich and powerful.

French Onion Dip

TAK Room’s potato chips and French onion dip. Photo: Scott Heins

A taxonomy of Wasp food would be incomplete without a mention of cocktail-friendly dips (clam, crab, artichoke) and the crunchy things that get plunged into them. One of the best is the French onion variety, whipped up in the early ’50s with a recipe later appearing on packages of Lipton onion-soup mix. You can find excellent made-from-scratch versions on the bar menu at Union Square Cafe and at TAK Room, where the sherry-spiked dip is surrounded by a moat of housemade Kennebec-potato chips in a cut-glass bowl.

Chicken Pot Pie

The Waverly Inn’s chicken pot pie. Photo: Melissa Hom

One of the recurring themes regarding what Wasps like to eat and where they like to eat it is old-fashioned comfort food in cozy, modestly furnished spaces where everyone knows everyone else. The Waverly Inn and its chicken pot pie fulfill these criteria, and the dish, like Anglo-Saxons themselves, arrived to these shores from the British Isles, where meat pies of all types enjoyed enormous popularity. Another Waspy thing about the Waverly, which still claims to be serving a “preview menu,” is its innate (but not impenetrable) clubbiness, a defining element of what this subculture prizes in its dining destinations.

Crab Cakes

While it’s true that the golden-crusted, loosely-packed patties of jumbo lump crab meat are most strongly identified with Baltimore’s Chesapeake Bay, the dish—like all Eastern-seaboard shellfish in myriad raw and cooked forms—has become an American (and Wasp) icon, and can be found anywhere nostalgic chefs and restaurateurs have seen fit to revive the not-so-forgotten classics. Though arguments persist about what belongs in an authentic crab cake besides the main ingredient, Craig Claiborne once ventured an incidentally Waspy opinion: “Mayonnaise produces superior crab cakes and, on reflection, why not? After all, it is a blend of egg and oil and mustard.” (At the Grill, TAK Room, “21” Club.)

Club Sandwich

The turkey club at Neil’s. Photo: Melissa Hom

With club right in its name, and bacon, mayo, and white bread as featured ingredients, it’s no surprise the iconic triple-decker sandwich traces its pedigreed origins back to either a ritzy Saratoga Springs casino or the kitchen of Manhattan’s Union Club. Now, of course, you can’t find a suburban country club or posh hotel room-service menu without one. But like anything too good to be contained behind the walls of social privilege, the triangle-cut, toothpick-skewered classic has long permeated all segments of society, becoming a staple at diners and coffee shops — not least of them Neil’s (961 Lexington Ave.), a Hunter College–area greasy spoon favored by none other than the paterfamilias of the Platt clan, Adam’s father, Nicholas. (Fancier versions can be found at Harry Cipriani and the Mark.)

Pigs In a Blanket

A bar mitzvah is not a bar mitzvah without a bountiful supply of miniature frankfurters wrapped in pastry dough with a pot of spicy dipping mustard at the ready. But, according to our ecumenical-finger-foods sources, the Wasp fondness for meat wrapped in dough (see beef Wellington) extends to pigs in a blanket. The first print mention of the little mouthwaterers appeared in a Betty Crocker cookbook of the late ’50s, but the dish was likely inspired by the British sausage roll that was all the go during the Victorian era. Funny that one of the Waspiest places to bolt a plate of pigs in a blanket today is the Polo Bar, which is, of course, run by a former yeshiva boy named Ralph Lauren.


J.G. Melon’s cheeseburger. Photo: Melissa Hom

While it’s true that the bunless twin burgers was a signature dish at Swifty’s, the late Wasp stronghold on the Upper East Side, the tribe’s burger of choice is a hefty, no-frills, pre-gourmet-burger-movement burger best represented by the pub or tavern styles served at locals like Corner Bistro, Molly’s Shebeen, Fanelli Cafe, and the new Red Hook Tavern. The epitome of the form is found at the original J.G. Melon, where no small part of its appeal is the atmosphere: green-checked tablecloths, pressed-tin ceiling, and a no-nonsense staff as seasoned as the griddle.

*A version of this article appears in the October 28, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Fresser’s Guide to Wasp Cuisine