Entertaining 110 Dinner Guests: Huntington Ballroom on Nob Hill, SF, CA (1897)

by Nancy Armitage

I was very excited when I found this Gilded Age dinner menu. It was located in one of Mr. Henry E. Huntington’s Rare Books; the book was called: The World’s Fair Menu & Recipe Book by Lehner. It was published in San Francisco, CA in 1915; the same year that the World’s Fair was located in San Francisco.

“Collis P. Huntington, President of the Southern Pacific Railroad Co.” This company ran trains, ships, & ferries throughout the United States of America in the 1880’s-1900’s. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

This special dinner took place on May 5, 1897 was located in Mr. & Mrs. Collis P. Huntington (Arabella) grand mansion on Nob Hill in San Francisco, CA. They had a Grand Salon or Ballroom which they also called the “Picture Gallery”. The Huntington’s address on Nob Hill was 1020 California Street in San Francisco in California.

Mrs. Arabella Huntington adored French antiques & dressed her dining room tables with grand candelabras with 7-10 candlesticks like this one above.. Photo credit: Nancy Armitage at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

So what was the event? It was the Southern Pacific Railroad Company’s “Annual Banquet” for their top executives. BTW, Mr. Collis P. Huntington had 50,000 employees. About 110 gentlemen from all over the USA were invited to this very formal dinner with formal attire of white tie & tails. Mr. Collis P. Huntington was the president of the SPRR Company & Henry E. Huntington was his executive “Assistant to the President”. Henry was probably in charge of this entire company dinner; but I am sure Arabella Huntington was in full discussion about the elegant French dinner menu.

The elegant dinner menu had a French theme & was 14-courses & was quite grand! The menu is interesting with a nod to a couple of the United States: New York (Waldorf Salad) & California (Petaluma Cheese). These states were the locations of the main branches of the Southern Pacific Co. : New York City, New York & San Francisco, CA. Collis & Arabella Huntington were bi-coastal & had 3 properties/mansions in New York : one was in the city on 57th St. in NYC & the other was an large estate “Homestead” Throgg’s Neck in Westchester Co. NY & Huntington Camp at “Pine Knot Lodge” and many buildings on large property on Racquette Lake in Adirondacks Mountains, & one mansion in San Francisco on Nob Hill at the time.

In some ways, the 1897 Dinner menu was was very simplistic & other ways it was very complicated: Complicated: There was not just one soup at this Gilded Age dinner, there was two different kinds of soup offered – complicated. The guests would have had to be asked what kind of soup did they prefer? Complicated & time consuming for the Huntington’s footmen. How many sauces were made for this one dinner? Lets count…seven sauces alone are on the menu. How many fancy fine bone porcelain plates & bowls were needed for a 14-multi-course extravaganza?? Lets go down the menu; this is for each quest: 1 Limoges oyster plate, 3 large soup plates maybe with a plate underneath them (2 for soups & 1 for the Terrapin with sauce), 4 salad plates (1 for the “Bouchees a la Reine” Horsd’oeuvre, 1 for the Waldorf Salad, 1 for the Cheese Course, & one for the “Pudding Diplomate”), 2 large Dinner plates (one for the Filet of Beef & one for the Golden Plover), 2 ice cream bowls (one for the Sorbet de Menthe Verte & one for the Neapolitan Ice Cream), 1 Coffee cup & saucer, 2 Dessert plates (for the Petit fours & chocolate bonbons with the coffee), & Bread plate and probably a “finger bowl” cresent shaped plate after eating the oysters. So a total of 17 plates for each guest! Oh my! Then times that by 110 guests of the Mr. Collis P. Huntington; it comes up to 1,870 plates & bowls, etc. for the entire evening!! BTW, someone had to hand wash all these beautiful and fancy gold & white plates & crystal glasses.

We know that Mrs. Arabella Huntington owned Crown Derby fine bone china plates from England; beautiful French Sevres plates, & Limoges plates made in France. The Huntington dinner most likely had fancy gold & white fine bone porcelain plates.

1890’s Simple: French “Chantilly Soup”: a very simple split pea soup- hearty for gentlemen, but only 5 ingredients. The libations were simple compared to other Gilded Age menus. The Waldorf Salad is super simple with only several ingredients. Only 3 libations (Simple) are listed on the dinner menu: the Rudesheimer Wine, Moet & Chandon Champagne & the Grand Vin Chateau LaFite Red Wine. So they would have needed 3 crystal glasses (one for sherry, one for champagne, & one for red wine) for 110 guests which makes 330 glasses for the grand ballroom “tablescapes” that evening.

Usually at a Gilded Age dinner they had a wine or a champagne with every single course. This was a simple solution to a grand meal. So that would be 14 different sherries, wines (White Hock. Claret, or Burgundy), sometimes 2 different champagnes & after-dinner libations, too. Diplomate Pudding sounds grand, but it is really quite simple. It was like a English or Irish trifle dessert with a sponge or pound cake; with dried fruit & custard poured on top & decorated on top. Gilded Age chefs could make custard in their sleep, easy! One often sees a “Pudding course” on these fancy 1890’s multi-course menus.

When I think about this grand Gilded Age dinner, I imagine I am the Huntington’s Head Chef that evening in Spring of 1897. Just how would I pull off this extraordinary amazing dinner for 110 gentlemen guests? How many kitchen staff would I need? How many wait servers & clean up crew would I need? At fine dining restaurants like Delmonicos in NYC & for this kind of formal dinner: at each of the dinner tables, all guests at the table are served at the exact same time for each course!! That takes a lot of staff to make that happen. Also, a talented chef to time it right, where this delicious food is hot & ready to go at the correct time. Not a easy task!

A stunning gold & white Limoges Oyster Plate, room for 5 raw oysters on the half shell & a small bowl of Mignonette Sauce placed in the middle. Served with wedges of lemons. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

Banquet at C. P. Huntington’s Residence San Francisco, CA 1020 California Street, May 5, 1897

Dinner Menu (14- courses)

  1. Huitres [Oysters on the Half Shell] probably served with lemon wedges & Mignonette Sauce (Shallot & Vinegar Sauce) served with Rudesheimer Wine; 5 Oysters served on elegant French Limoges fine bone porcelain Oyster Plates.

Hors d’Oeuvre [Starter or Appetizer courses]

2. Two choices of soups Potage [a Cream Soup like French Cream Pea Soup “Chantilly Soup” or French Cauliflower Soup “Creme de Barry” with cauliflower, leeks, chicken stock, potatoes, & French Tarragon] served on large soup bowls with a large plate underneath the soup bowl.

3. or Consomme Seveigne [Chicken Forcemeat Balls, with French chervil & cayenne pepper in a chicken broth] served on large soup bowls with a plate underneath

4. Bouchees, a la Reine [Famous French hors d’oeuvre made with chicken, mushrooms, & truffles in a puff pastry bowl with puff pastry round top; usually served with Allemande Sauce also called “Sauce Parisienne” [which was whipped cream cheese with oil & citrus juices] served on a salad plate

Poisson [Fish Course]

5. Terrapin, a la Newburg [Stewed Turtle in a sherry mushroom cream sauce] served with Moet & Chandon French Champagne served on a large soup bowl

Releve [Main Entrée Course]

6. Filet de Boeuf, a la Richelieu [Filet Mignon of Beef in a sauce with cooking juices]; sometimes several sauces (3 or 4) would be offered to the guests: Bernaise Sauce: a thick lemony sauce or a rich red wine sauce like a Madeira Sauce or Espagnole Sauce. a spicy sauce] served with New Peas [French Petit Pois -Green Peas] & Bermuda Potatoes

7. Sorbet de Menthe Verte [Mint Green Sorbet, served as a palate cleanser & a break in the middle of this large banquet dinner]

Roti [Roasted Game Course]

8. Golden Plover sur Canape [Wild Bird served in a puff pastry on on a bread toast with a mushroom cream & shallot sauce]

9. Salad a la Waldorf [Famous Waldorf Salad from the Waldorf Hotel in NYC: Waldorf is a simple salad of crisp chopped green apples, celery, grapes, toasted pecans, & mayonnaise on a bed of butter lettuce] served with Grand Vin Chateau Lafite [a Cabernet Sauvignon wine from the most famous winery in the world, Chateau Lafite Rothschild in France]

Fromage [Cheese Course served in the French style after the Entree]

10. Petaluma Cream [Northern California Cheese] & Roquefort cheese [French robust French blue cheese probably served with Bent’s water crackers]

Entremets [Signature Desserts]

11. Pudding Diplomate [like a Irish or English Trifle with layers of sponge cake, candied fruit like orange peel & dried apricots with a custard pour over the cake. Served with Brandy Sauce & maybe golden dried apricots sliced on the top.

12. Neapolitan Ice Cream (Combination of Chocolate, Cherry & Vanilla ice Creams in layers, served quite large & grand in shapes of castles or domes] with a Chocolate Fudge Sauce or a Raspberry Sauce or Butterscotch Sauce or all the above. With chopped nuts sprinkled on the top

13. Petits Fours, Assortis [Assorted French Petit Iced square cakes, often decorated on top with a iced flower or initials like “SP” for Southern Pacific Co. which was hosting this elegant banquet dinner]

14. Cafe [French Roast Coffee, usually served with Roasted nuts, dried fruits or small chocolate mints or French “Bon-bons” French truffle candy]

Document: Rare Book Lehner, The Worlds Fair Menu & Recipe Book, San Francisco, 1915. Nancy Note: This grand 14-course elegant banquet dinner was hosted by Collis P. Huntington at his Nob Hill Mansion at 1020 California Street San Francisco, CA. One can see Arabella Huntington (Mrs. Collis P. Huntington at the time) French influence on the grand menu.

Chantilly Soup or Potage St. Germain, favorite of Mrs. Arabella Huntington. A lovely combination of French Spring garden green peas “Petit pois”, mint, chicken stock, & heavy cream. Recipe below.

At these Gilded Age grand dinners in the 1890’s, there was a choice of soups, a cream soup or a clear broth. Or a guest could have both, but they probably picked just one. The Potage (French Soup) we know was probably a cream soup because the other soup listed above was a broth. Here is a recipe for a lovely French pea cream soup, I found in a 1899 cookbook, the same decade as this formal dinner party:

A hot soup served in a bowl with a top (Haviland sugar bowl is what Mrs. Huntington used). This is a brilliant idea to keep the soup hot from Kitchen to Dining Room Table, especially in a mansion when they are far away from each other.. The lime green plate is Wedgewood; we know that that Arabella Huntington had s huge set of Wedgewood plates in NYC, but we don’t know which pattern. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

A marvelous secret of Arabella Huntington’s was to use large sugar bowls with tops for a soup vessel; so the soup would remain hot from the Kitchen to Dining Room table. For smaller get togethers (Luncheon) I think they used these vessels with tops. French Haviland fine porcelain sugar containers are quite large with a wide mouth, they hold 1-2 cups of liquid; perfect for this purpose.

Mrs. Huntington’s grand needlepoint or tapestry 6- panel screen. It could have been used as a food “Staging Area” in the Dining Room in her Huntington Mansions. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage at the Huntington Library San Marino, CA

But for this grand dinner, they probably used large French Soup tureens with tops to keep the soup nice & hot for the guests. In the Huntington Mansions, they often had fancy French tapestry or needlepoint 6-panel screens (above). Behind these screens would be food “staging area” for this purpose, similar to the Palace Hotel, a private club, or Delmonico’s restaurant. The large soup tureens filled with hot soup from the kitchen were set out by the footmen on a large side buffet table in the Huntington San Francisco Ball Room “Picture Gallery”. The soup remaining nice & hot because of the fine bone porcelain insulation. Then, at the appropriate time, the footman ladled the hot soup out of the soup tureen & into large fancy soup bowls. Then, the soup was served to the guests by the footmen.

Chantilly Soup (1899)

I love the romantic name of this soup. “Chantilly” is a French term, meaning flavored cream. In Paris, they call it “Potage St. Germain”; which Mrs. Arabella Huntington enjoyed at the Hotel Bristol (1913 receipt). Another delicious French soup they could have served was “Creme du Barry” a French Cauliflower soup, substitute cauliflower for the peas, & the mint for French tarragon & voila! another great delicious soup. The Gilded Age directions is this 1899 were quite complicated; today (2021) one would add all ingredients to a stock pot, cook on medium for 20 mins. Take a Braun hand blender & mix to a puree & pour into a large soup tureen, & then transfer to individual soup bowl, garnish and serve to your guests.

4 c. young green peas

4 sprigs of mint [Spearmint]

6 Spring onions [Green onions]

3 pints chicken stock

add some heavy cream

Boil until quite tender, remove the mint & the onions, press the peas through a sieve & pour in chicken stock. Add heavy cream. Garnished with toasted croutons with minced spearmint on top. Adapted from Cassell, Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery, 1899. Document: HEH Coll. HEH MS12/1-30 uncat (Chateau Beauregard 7 boxes; Paris hotel Bristol invoices: ADH & HEH)

Consomme Seveigne with Southern Style forcemeats recipe (1897)

This is a simple & elegant soup; in the Victorian Age, they called meatballs & stuffing: “Forcemeats”. In the Victorian Age, they also had metal sausage grinder, you attach to a table & put the meat & stuffing in, rotate a handle & the mixed meat would come out at the bottom. Check antique stores for these sausage grinders. One could substitute the chicken forcemeats with Turkey Burger, or Garlic Meatballs. In a pinch, meatballs can be found in the frozen food section of most grocery stores.

2 qts. chicken consomme or chicken stock

20 chicken forcemeats, ground turkey or beef meatballs (Look below for recipes)

1 head lettuce, chopped very thin

1/4 c. French garden peas, “Petit Pois”

2 T. French chervil, minced

Add chicken stock, when boiling, one at a time, add the forcemeats or meatballs. Let cook 10 minutes. Add other ingredients in a stockpot, except the lettuce. In the last minutes of heating, add lettuce. Recipe: Nancy Armitage adapted from Escoffier’s recipe

Southern-Style Homemade Forcemeat

A southern tradition & especially an Alabama tradition, is “Chicken & Dressing”. Arabella Yarrington Worsham Huntington was born & raised in Mobile, Alabama. This dressing would be made into “Forcemeat” or meatballs for this soup. Add Pepperidge Farm dressing mix, & crumbled cornbread with cooked cubed chicken & onion. To moisten, add cream of chicken soup & I beaten egg. Roll into small balls. When the soup or stock gets to a rolling boil, pop the forcemeats into the stock. They are done when they rise to the top. Recipe: A Alabama Chef

or Handmade Forcemeats (Meatballs)

1 lb. beef or ground chicken

1/2 c. dried bread crumbs

1 egg

minced onions or 1-2 garlic cloves or both

salt & pepper.

Mix all ingredients until well blended. Take little clumps of meat & with both hands, roll into a ball. Place on plate until ready, then to add to hot boiling chicken stock, they are done when they rise to the top of the chicken stock. Recipe by Nancy Armitage

In many private clubs, or fancy restaurants they would have offered several sauces for the main entrée. The sauces that could have accompanied the Filet de Mignon steak could have been a Lemony Bernaise Sauce, a Madeira Sauce (rich mushroom wine sauce) or a Espagnole Sauce (spicy tomato based sauce). A Madeira sauce is made with a combination of beef stock, flour, madeira wine, onion, Shitake mushroom, finished with butter, salt & pepper. A Espagnole Sauce is a brown stock made with mirepoix of onions, celery, & carrots, with tomatoes & thickened with a roux. It is finished with butter, tomato puree, beef stock, garlic, peppercorns & California Bay leaf (for flavor & then taken out of sauce).

Diplomate Pudding

1 sponge cake of leftover cake, cut into small pieces

2 t. candied fruit like orange peel, dried apricots, cranberries, or dried cherries


1 qt. milk

6 eggs

1 c. sugar

Heat until thicken & pour over the cake.

Using a greased pudding mold, crumble the sponge or leftover cake into small pieces. Sprinkle a variety of candied & dried fruit (reserve some for the top). In a saucepan, make the custard by adding all the ingredients & cooking slowly until thicken then pour over the cake. Bake the pudding for 45-60 minutes until firm. Sprinkle the remained candied fruit & dried fruit on top. Serve with Brandy Sauce (heat up in a saucepan) pour into a gravy bowl or a small pitcher. Adapted from Hotel St. Francis Cookbook in San Francisco by Chef Hirtzler by Nancy Armitage


Cookbook: The World’s Fair Menu & Recipe Book by Lehner, published in San Francisco, CA in 1915 for the Worlds Fair that year. Rare Book: Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

Cookbook: Hotel St. Francis Cookbook by Victor Hirtzler in San Francisco

Little post dessert nibbles, a mint candy or a French Bon-Bons (Chocolate Truffle) in the foreground in the baskets; served with French roasted coffee at the end of the fancy dinner meal with after dinner liqueurs or demitasse.

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