A Niagara Note: Lavish 19th-century dining served up at Clifton House

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For 65 years it was Niagara Falls’ leading 19th-century hotel, a landmark known the world over. Called the Clifton House, it was on the site now occupied by Oakes Garden Theatre.

The hotel was built in 1833 and had a number of additions over the years that followed. As early as 1842, it was described in a Niagara guidebook as “large, elegant, commodious, well-finished and well-furnished.”

The hotel became famous not only for its luxurious accommodations and superb location, but for its ballroom and beautiful gardens. The hotel’s guest registers became widely recognized as among the most interesting in North America since they contained the names of so many famous and distinguished people from all over the globe.

It also had an enviable reputation for lavish dining complemented by wines from the hotel’s own extensive cellars. Fortunately, we have some examples of this. For instance, a special dinner at the Clifton House on Oct. 31, 1855, featured a menu that was utterly amazing. To begin, there were two soups and fish dishes, along with boiled ham, mutton and turkey, each with its own sauce. Next came roasts of ham, turkey, beef and lamb. Seven cold and ornamental dishes were available, followed by 11 entrees. After that came game and vegetable dishes, including venison, canvasback duck, prairie chicken, three types of potatoes, onions, turnips, beets and squash. To cap off the meal, there was a choice of such items as plum or rice pudding, apple pie, orange pie, quince tarts, wine jelly, lemon ice cream, grapes and walnuts. The total calorie count must have been beyond calculation.

At another large banquet held on July 25, 1896, the hotel’s chefs again outdid themselves, as did the people who set the tables. The local press was allowed a look: “The tables were resplendent with rare cut glass, Venetian ware and solid silver. The decorations were in red and yellow. The candelabra were tied with yellow satin ribbons, while boutonnieres were placed at each plate. Potted and foliage plants were banked about the room and the hotel’s orchestra provided the dinner music.”

The banquet that night featured such choices as little rock clams, Russian caviar on toast, boiled Kennebec salmon, anchovy toast, peaches a la Richelieu, roast partridge, banana salad, fig pudding, maraschino ice cream and Roquefort cheese.

I recently had the good fortune to see a copy of a regular dinner menu from the Clifton House dated July 28, 1887.

A few of the items available that day in the hotel’s dining room included: boiled trout, roast beef, boiled leg of mutton with capers, Boston baked pork and beans, fried spring chicken, veal stew, succotash, potato salad, beets, peach pie, gooseberry pie, fruit cake, Stilton cheese and watermelon. No prices were given because the hotel operated on the American plan, that is, the daily rate covered both your room and meals.