Promoting passion in book collecting

A Brief History of Modern Restaurant Menus


Menu: Voisin Restaurant, NYC (March 25, 1943)

These days restauranteurs spend considerable resources on crafting the perfect menus. The process is both an art and a science, building on the principles of psychology to maximize profits. Meanwhile, some trendy restaurants are dispensing with menus altogether, exhorting guests to trust the talents and tastes of the chef.

Not so long ago (only a few centuries!), restaurant patrons almost always had to put their palates in the hands of the kitchen–usually with less than delicious results. In Europe before the mid-18th century, people actually avoided eating outside their homes at virtually all costs. They generally ate outside their own homes only when they were traveling–and the wealthy even sidestepped that by bringing their own foodstuffs and servants to prepare their meals for them.

Restaurants as we conceive them hadn’t emerged yet; travelers only had taverns and inns as options. These establishments frequently served food alongside the booze, but of questionable quality. Proprietors would serve whatever suited them, and patrons often found themselves subject to meals of scraps and offal. Patrons also ate at a communal table, at a time specified by the establishment. Now known as table d’hôte, this practice sounds quite classy…not so in the eighteenth century, when you were likely squeezed between drunkards and thieves!

Menu-SS Europa-Independence Day

Menu: SS Europa (July 4, 1932)

The first restaurants as we think of them emerged, of course, in mid 18th-century Paris. The word restaurant refers to a restorative meat or broth bouillon offered to people who were too weak to take a full meal. These restaurants were originally served in institutions with luxurious interiors designed to appeal to the wealthy. They featured individual tables, dining at unspecified hours, and a list of dishes patrons could choose from. Even as this style of dining slowly took hold, the idea of a written or printed menu still took a while to catch on. Options were often listed on a chalkboard (à la carte) or recited by the waiter.

Menu-Arion Singing Society-Independence Day

Menu: Arion Singing Society (July 4, 1913)

By the nineteenth century, producing menus was a much more common practice. Menus’ physical design also evolved according to typographical innovations of the period. At first, they were quite simple, usually single sheets with lots of print jammed on the page. But as paper got cheaper and printing processes got faster, menus got more ornate. Soon it was not uncommon for menus to look like simple books, bound in leather and held together with silk cord. These later reverted to a few sheets with illustrations. Classical menus tended to offer seven to eight courses, usually listed in the following order: appetizer, soup, fish entree, meat or poultry entree, vegetable, salad, dessert, and a selection of meats or cheeses.

Menu-Waldorf Bar-Luncheon

Menu: Waldorf Bar-Luncheon (Nov 29, 1940)

One feature notably absent from most early menus was pricing. Judging from the menus of the time, it was relatively uncommon for 19th-century menus to include prices. That practice didn’t gain steam until the turn of the century and grew commonplace by the 1920’s. Even without prices, menus provide valuable information about what people ate, and where and when. Menus can also help food historians trace culinary trends and the geographic spread of particular dishes and specialties.

Collectors with a culinary focus also collect menus because these ephemera offer intriguing snapshots into the past. It’s possible to build a rare menu collection around a number of concentrations, such as the menus of one particular region or even a single restaurant, or special occasion menus. What menus have found their way into your collection? Why are they significant to you?

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This entry was posted on October 16, 2013 by in Food and Literature, History and tagged , , , .
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