How Sweet It Was: Washington's Great Caterer-Confectioners

Washingtonians have always loved their cakes, ice cream, and candy, and the city's best confectioners have been extremely good at what they do. Noted confectioners have worked in the city since at least the early 1800s, one of the first being Joseph Boulanger (1791–1862), a Belgian native who came to Washington to be head chef at the Executive Mansion during the Andrew Jackson administration. Boulanger learned the art of cooking at the famous Maison Chevet restaurant in Paris and was known for his cakes, ice cream and candy. He continued to cook for Martin Van Buren after Jackson but left after about two years to open a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he was one of the city's earliest purveyors of fine confections.

Thomas Jarvis had fought with the Confederates during the Civil War before opening his shop on 9th Street (Author's collection).

A prominent profession in the 19th century, the caterer/confectioner was the epitome of commercial fine dining. Acclaimed chefs in the French tradition in those days were expected to display their virtuosity through their delicate and sumptuous confectionary. When they opened their own restaurants, they would offer catering services and sell cakes and candies in addition to offering sit-down dinners in their fashionable dining rooms. Catering was essential for these early restaurants because most of the city's important dinners and receptions were held in private homes.

One of the most prominent of mid 19th century caterer/confectioners was Charles Gautier (1811-1884), who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1838. In 1846, Gautier advertised a “Great Christmas Display” at his Ville de Paris on the northeast corner of 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, promising he could “supply parties and balls with every thing that is rich and good and needed on such occasions, at reasonable rates.” He invited visitors to see his display of “a large number of superb Cakes, most tastefully and richly ornamented, ranging in weight from five pounds up to near twelve hundred pounds!” The Evening Star’s James Croggon recalled that Gautier’s Christmas display also included handsomely dressed dolls, which drew admiring crowds.

Part of an accounting of debts owed by the estate of Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) to Charles Gautier, prepared on Gautier's letterhead. Source: National Archives, courtesy of Bob Ellis.
Gautier was a master of haute cuisine. He catered inaugural parties for James Buchanan in 1857 and Abraham Lincoln in 1861. When not catering enormous parties, Gautier tended to his elegant restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1853 he built a new place at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and a detailed description was printed in the Alexandria Gazette:
Entering the main front door from the broad sidewalk of one of the most frequented parts of the avenue, you find yourself in a handsome Confectionary and Comestible Store, the counters of white marble, the floor of chequerwork, the walls and ceiling highly embellished, and lighted, at night, by gas emitted from a chandelier of much taste and great costliness. Immediately in the rear of this, but still in the same room, you advance, up a step or two, to a saloon with walls beautifully papered, and fittingly ceiled and carpeted, containing series of marble-topped tables and exquisite chairs to match, for the accommodation of lady visitors or parties of ladies and gentlemen…. Descending into the lower regions of the establishment, we encounter a room for the making of Ice Cream, three apartments for the manufacture of French Confectionary, store rooms, oven, kitchen, furnace-room, &c., all fitted up with a view to convenience and labor-saving, and after the most modern and approved plans….
A March 1865 advertisement proclaimed Gautier’s to be “the restaurant of this city, where a gentleman can take a lady to enjoy the luxuries of the season, as no improper characters are admitted here.” Ironically, that very month, one of the most improper characters in U.S. history, John Wilkes Booth, had met with his co-conspirators at Gautier's to plan the kidnapping of President Lincoln. Gautier was later questioned about the plotters, but he had no involvement in the conspiracy. After the war, Gautier got out of the confectionary and catering business and concentrated on wholesale liquor sales, including his trademarked Native Wine Bitters. He died at his home in Washington in 1884.

Gautier had several competitors, including English-born Thomas Jarvis (1831-1924), who ran a small shop on 9th Street and advertised catering services "in high class style at most reasonable rates." Perhaps Gautier's biggest rival was Jean Charles Demonet (1811-1868), who with his wife Ida (1825-1900) started a small confectionary and catering business on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House in 1848. Parisian-born Demonet met his Dutch-born wife in the U.S., and a few years after getting married and moving to Washington they were in business together. According to an obituary for Ida Demonet that appeared in the Star, "M. Demonet had all of the culinary art of the most carefully trained French chef, and ably assisted by his young Holland wife, who had been brought up amid surroundings that commanded rare neatness and tidyness in everything undertaken, the Demonet establishment soon became popular." Another Star article notes that in Civil War days, Demonet's was prestigious enough to be frequented by President Lincoln, General Ulysses Grant, and other Washington notables.

Postcard view of Demonet's lunchroom on Pennsylvania Avenue (Author's collection).
After her husband's untimely death in 1868, Ida Demonet continued the business in association with her sons, and it was as "Mme. Demonet & Sons" that the business gained a broad following as a charming spot on the avenue to drop in and grab lunch or just a tasty treat. A four-line advertisement in The Evening Star for June 30, 1897, gives a tiny glimpse at what summertime indulgences were like in that era:
THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP COOL IS TO CALL at MME. DEMONET & SONS, 1714 Pennsylvania avenue, and try a plate of APRICOT CREAM or RASPBERRY WATER ICE. The best in the city.
Ida Demonet's eldest son Jules (1854-1926) took over the business after his mother died and set about modernizing it for the 20th century. Most importantly, he moved Demonet's north to the fashionable commercial district developing along Connecticut Avenue between K Street and Dupont Circle. The Demonet building, on the southeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and M Street NW, still stands, a distinctive Victorian structure with a prominent cupola, now surrounded by tall office boxes. Here, according to The Washington Post, "the fame of the establishment has grown each year until today [1926], under the direction of the third generation, Demonet's serves fashionable functions throughout the East and the South of the country. The acquaintances made among members of the diplomatic corps has carried the prestige of the business all over the world."

The former Demonet building on Connecticut Avenue (photo by the author).
Demonet's biggest competitor, Charles Rauscher (1854-1917) was located across Connecticut Avenue on the northwest corner of Connecticut and L Street NW. Born in the French border province of Alsace, Rauscher learned the catering profession in Paris as a young man. He immigrated to the US in 1878 and first took up residence in New York City, where he worked for the well-known American confectioner, Louis Sherry (1855-1926). Rauscher moved to Washington in 1892, when he opened his own business, called Maison Rauscher, as a French confectioner and caterer at 1110 Connecticut Avenue NW. Rauscher’s establishment featured a commodious upstairs ballroom that was the scene of numerous formal dinners, dances, and other elegant receptions. According to The Evening Star, Rauscher’s came to be known as the “Delmonico’s of Washington” for its central role in so many Washington social functions.

Rauscher catered hundreds of exclusive social events, including White House weddings and inaugural balls. According to The Washington Times, Rauscher contracted to cater the luncheon at William McKinley’s 1901 inaugural ball in a specially constructed annex to the Pension Building. “Rauscher has been in business in Washington for several years, and numbers among his patrons the most distinguished entertainers of the city and has supplied the menus on many notable occasions,” the Times observed. Among the items he was to provide were consommé of chicken à la Reine, oysters sautéed with white wine sauce, croquettes “exquises,” and an assortment of Neapolitan biscuits, mousses, “glaces fantaisies,” cakes, and bonbons. Along with the elegant French fare were boned capon, cold tongue in jelly, ham in jelly, cold fillet of beef, mayonnaise of chicken, potato salad, assorted sandwiches, cheese straws, peppermints, and salted almonds.

Advertisement for an event at Rauscher's, from The Washington Times, October 28, 1915. (Source: Library of Congress).
After catering many elegant events and serving sweets to legions of Washingtonians, Rauscher retired in 1915 at age 61. He died just two years later. Rauscher's continued in business, moving in the early 1920s a few blocks north to the Anchorage apartment building at Connecticut Avenue and Q Street, where it became Restaurant Pierre in 1931.

The black Washington community, ruthlessly segregated in those days, did not lack for its own elegant restaurateur following in the tradition of the great 19th century caterer/confectioners. His name was Robert Hilliard Harrison (1875-1959), and his Harrison’s Café, at 455 Florida Avenue NW, was a widely acclaimed local landmark. Harrison was a native Washingtonian who gained a knowledge of the culinary arts at an early age. He served as a butler in the household of an Ohio congressman when he was a teenager, and later, from 1894 to 1898, he worked for a wealthy businessman who took him on extensive travels to Europe. Young Bob Harrison learned how to prepare a wide range of culinary delicacies. In 1910, while working as a government clerk, he started making Harrison’s Old Fashioned Molasses Kisses at home and offering them for sale in city drugstores. They were a huge hit. After ten years, he had gained such a following that he decided to quit his government job and open a candy store at 467 Florida Avenue NW, featuring Harrison’s Special Ice Cream among other delicacies. Finally in 1923, with the help of his wife Lottie, Harrison closed his candy store and opened Harrison’s Café in the Victorian townhouse adjacent to his home. His goal was to offer a first-class dining experience for African Americans.

A fixture in the black community for almost 40 years, Harrison’s had few rivals. The sign outside Harrison’s proclaimed the café was “Open All Nite,” and Harrison skirted the liquor curfew by allowing guests to retire to private upstairs dining rooms after midnight, where they could continue drinking into the wee hours of the morning. An elegant banquet hall, called the Gold Room, was the scene of countless formal dinners and special celebrations. Harrison died in 1959, and his cafe continued to operate until 1962.

Meanwhile, when Demonet's finally went out of business in 1940, it turned over its recipes and operations to one of the last in the line of traditional caterer/confectioners, Avignone Frères at 1777 Columbia Road NW in Adams Morgan. Avignone Frères was celebrated for its sophisticated, exquisitely made pastries and its elegant dining room. Brothers Natale (1888-1981) and Martin (1892-1977) Avignone were born in Albiano, in northern Italy, and were trained in the formal French culinary tradition. They came to Washington in the 1910s and began their D.C. career working for Jules Demonet. The brothers first opened their own restaurant in 1920 on 18th Street NW and then moved to their longtime Columbia Road address in 1928. From the start they emphasized their refined European heritage. A 1922 Christmas ad included a charming mishmash of French and English:
Noel, the season sans souci, should see our Christmas Fruit Cake on your table and our taste-tempting Bons Bons and assorted Chocolates under your Christmas tree.... If your taste be en rapport with that of discriminating confectionery-conoscenti in France, Switzerland, Italy and America, you will consider Avignone Freres Caramels give a delight that is truly recherche. The thing that is comme il faut at Christmas is to serve our Molded Ice Cream.
For years Avignone Frères reigned as the city's top caterer for social events, from formal diplomatic receptions to private wedding parties. It gained its greatest renown under the direction of Pietro Orcino (1908–1984), originally a private chef who worked for socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean and other Washington notables. Orcino came to Avignone Frères in 1941 and then took over operations when the Avignone brothers retired in 1945. In 1963, The Evening Star called Orcino "Washington's most famous caterer" and, at the height of the Cold War, marveled at how he could serve both the White House and the Soviet Embassy with the same grace and discretion. In 1962 Orcino remodeled the restaurant on Columbia Road in the prevailing French fashion, with thick carpets, gold and crystal sconces, tufted gold chairs, and two-story black marble pillars.

Postcard of the interior of Avignone Frères in the early 1960s (Author's collection).
For a brief period, La Loge at Avignone Frères, as it was called, was one of the city's best restaurants, but after the riots of 1968 the restaurant closed and Orcino concentrated on his catering and confectionary business. Although the restaurant reopened in 1976, Avignone Frères was no longer what it once had been. Its final closing in 1986 marked the end of an era for Washington confectioner-caterers.

Postcard view of the storefront of the old Velati's store at 9th and G Streets NW. (Author's collection).
Of course, the city has seen many other great candy stores and confectioners that did not necessarily include catering or fine dining in their services, among them the Brownley Confectionary and Reeve's Bakery, both on F Street; Huyler's on Pennsylvania Avenue; Stohlman's in Georgetown—now ensconced in the Smithsonian—and Velati's on G Street. You can still buy caramels made according to the original Velati's recipes at the Velati's store on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. It may be one of the few traces left of the celebrated confectioners from the city's past.

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Parts of this article previously appeared in Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by The History Press in 2013.

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Comments

  1. A family friend Robert Byer worked for VELATIS for many years. He took care of the kiosks inside of Woodward and Lothrop.

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  2. A family friend Robert Byer worked for VELATIS for many years. He took care of the kiosks inside of Woodward and Lothrop.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great article John! Thank you for your research. One more Confectioner/Caterer to add to your list was John G. Reisinger's Confectionery and Ice Cream Saloon on 235 G St NW. Mr. Reisinger was born in Germany then immigrated to the United States in 1853. He was part of the DC Volunteer troop who Abraham Lincoln choose to serve as his guard at his inauguration in 1861. According to historic magazines and census records, I believed his shop was at least around from 1860-1910.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Drew! I appreciate knowing about Reisinger's and will keep it mind for future updates.

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  4. Would love to find the recipe for the rum cake that was like a tort

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