Foodie Alert: New York Public Library Presents an Archive of 17,000 Restaurant Menus (1851–2008)

Met Hotel

To be a New York­er is to be a gourmand—of food carts, local din­ers, super­mar­kets, out­er bor­ough mer­ca­dos, what­ev­er lat­est upscale restau­rant sur­faces in a giv­en sea­son.… It is to be as like­ly to have a menu in hand as a news­pa­per, er… smart­phone…, and it is to notice the design of said menus. Well, some of us have done that. Often the added atten­tion goes unre­ward­ed, but then some­times it does. Now you, dear read­er, can expe­ri­ence well over one-hun­dred years of star­ing at menus, thanks to the New York Pub­lic Library’s enor­mous dig­i­tized col­lec­tion. Fan­cy a time warp through din­ing halls abroad? You’ll not only find sev­er­al hun­dred New York restau­rants rep­re­sent­ed here, but hun­dreds more from all over the world. With a col­lec­tion of 17,000 menus and count­ing, a per­son could eas­i­ly get lost.

You may notice I used the word “gour­mand,” and not “food­ie” above. While it might be a gross anachro­nism to call some­one a “food­ie” in 1859, the year the menu for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Hotel (above) was print­ed, it might also import a cos­mopoli­tan con­cept of din­ing that didn’t seem to exist, at least at this estab­lish­ment. More than any­thing, the menu resem­bles the var­i­ous descrip­tions of pub food that pop­u­late Joyce’s Ulysses. Though much of it was deli­cious, I’m sure, for heavy eaters of meat, eggs, pota­toes, and bread, you won’t find a veg­etable so much as men­tioned in pass­ing. The fare does include such hearty sta­ples as “Hashed Fish,” “Stale Bread,” and “Break­fast Wine.” The design mar­ries flow­ery Vic­to­ri­an ele­ments with the kind of font found in Old West type­sets.

Maison Prunier Cover

1939 was a good year for menus, at least in Europe. While New York insti­tu­tions like the Wal­dorf Asto­ria prac­ticed cer­tain design aus­ter­i­ties, the Mai­son Prunier, with loca­tions in Paris and Lon­don, spared no expense in the print­ing of their full-col­or fish­er­mans’ slice of life paint­ing on the menu cov­er above and the ele­gant typog­ra­phy of its exten­sive con­tents below. A ver­sion was print­ed in English—though The New York Pub­lic Library (NYPL) doesn’t seem to have a copy of it dig­i­tized. One Eng­lish phrase stands out at the bot­tom, how­ev­er: the trans­la­tion of “Tout Ce Qui Vient De La Mer–Everything From the Sea.” Oth­er menus for this restau­rant show the same kind of care­ful atten­tion to design. Click­ing on the pages of many of the NYPL menus—like this one from a 1938 Mai­son Prunier menu—brings up an inter­ac­tive fea­ture that links each dish to close-up views.

Maison Prunier Page 1

In a post on the NYPL menu col­lec­tion, Buz­zfeed specif­i­cal­ly com­pares New York menus of today with those of 100 years ago, not­ing that prices quot­ed sig­ni­fy cents, not dol­lars. A 1914 Del­moni­co “Rib of Roast” would run you .75 cents, for exam­ple, while a 2014 rib eye there sells for 58 big ones. Of course then, as now, many restau­rants con­sid­ered it gauche to print prices at all. See, for exam­ple, the din­ner menu at New Orleans’ St. Charles Hotel from 1908 below. We may have an all-inclu­sive feast here since this comes from a New Years Eve bill, which also includes a “Musi­cal Pro­gram” in two parts and a list of local “Amuse­ments” at such places as Blaney’s Lyric The­atre, Tulane, Dauphine, “French Orera” (sic), and the 2:00 pm races at City Park. Mati­nees and 8 o’clock shows every day except Sun­day.

St Charles Hotel

The six­ties gave us an explo­sion of menus that par­al­lel in many cas­es the break­out designs of mag­a­zine and album cov­ers. See two stand­outs below. The North Ger­man Lloyd, just below, went with a funky chil­dren’s book-cov­er illus­tra­tion for its 1969 menu cov­er, though its inte­ri­or main­tains a min­i­mal­ist clar­i­ty. Below it, see the strik­ing first page of a menu for John­ny Garneau’s Gold­en Spike from that same year. The cov­er boasts a nos­tal­gic head­line sto­ry for Promon­to­ry News: “Gold­en Spike is Dri­ven: The last rail is laid! East meets West in Utah!” Put it on the cov­er of a  Band or CSNY album and no one bats an eye.

North German Lloyd

Golden Spike

See many, many, many more menus at the NYPL site. With the steady growth of food schol­ar­ship, this col­lec­tion is cer­tain­ly a boon to researchers, as well as curi­ous gour­mands, food­ies, and rabid din­ers of all stripes.

via Buz­zfeed

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Pris­on­ers Ate at Alca­traz in 1946: A Vin­tage Prison Menu

Howard Johnson’s Presents a Children’s Menu Fea­tur­ing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Exten­sive Archive of Avant-Garde & Mod­ernist Mag­a­zines (1890–1939) Now Avail­able Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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