If you read them correctly, restaurant menus tell you more than just what’s on offer from the kitchen. Look closely and you’ll spot unwitting details of the era in which they were made. And if you have access to a choice collection of them that spans decades, they’ll actually tell you the story of America’s history (and make you pretty hungry, too). Oftentimes, you don’t even need to look beyond the artful covers to form an idea of the bygone days. For example (below), a server dramatically brandishing a cocktail shaker of orange juice suggests a bar owner’s desperation during Prohibition; the Hotel New Yorker showed its patriotism with tankers, fighter planes, and armed soldiers on their menu; and images of African-American stereotypes are a painful reminder of racism so rampant in this country that it had a place on café menus.
In 2012, collectors Eugene Beer and Barbara McMahon launched Cool Culinaria to reprint the vintage menu on mugs, tea towels, and note cards. Yes, tea towels (we know what you’re thinking), but let’s look at their collection—which dates back to the 1800s—as a sort of online archive sourced from private collectors, libraries, and most recently, the Culinary Institute of America. The duo doesn’t feature many menus from after the late ’60s, because, according to Beer, independent restaurants were on the decline by then, and as a result, the menu designs became less interesting. Another bummer? Most menu graphics weren’t signed, so Beer and McMahon have been unable too track down the designers. But this is no reason for the menus’ artistry to go unrecognized. Here, we look at some of the standouts.
During Prohibition (1920-1933) bars got creative. There’s that aforementioned orange-juice-slinging bartender above, an illustration for the Hotel Pennsylvania’s Fountain Room based on the flair-bartending Jerry Thomas, the man credited for popularizing cocktails across the United States. Then in 1934, a year after the end of Prohibition, the Fountain Room printed a menu cover with what looks like an Art-Deco barley plant, the raw ingredient of beer and the first item listed inside.
During WWII, the Hotel New Yorker ran a series of menus with wartime themes such as “arms” and “manpower” with illustrations of a marching soldier, a farmer plowing the soil, and a scientist working to create new technologies.
Neil Tavern, a premier spot in the Midwest that played host to presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, used its menu design to boast about the agricultural industry. There are peaches from Georgia, frogs from Louisiana, wine from California, butter from Wisconsin, and bananas arriving in a ship from the Caribbean. Eugene Beer says in jest, “This is all corn now.”
If you look closely, Neil Tavern’s menu also included a black toddler with thick red, sausage-like lips, in the company of two large watermelons. Unfortunately, such racist African-American stereotypes weren’t unusual. See illustrations of the hired help on the 1929 menu cover of the MS Saturnia ocean liner that sailed from Genoa to New York. Likewise, the 1930s children’s menu of the Southern Pacific Railroad featured the engineer, conductor, and queen as white (white people were purple so the illustrations stood out against the background), while the porter and waiter were black.
Anthropomorphic cartoons began to show up in menus in the mid-20th century to appeal to the growing middle class, who could afford to eat outside their homes, according to Henry Voigt, a private collector from Delaware who’s amassed one of the most significant menu collections in the country. These cartoons, Voigt says, are expressions of popular culture. In Beer’s collection, a few of these cartoons are cigars connoisseurs, perhaps symbolizing class and taste.
Specials were stapled on this menu from the 1940s, creating a brilliant riot of colors. But what’s more fascinating is the address field at the back of the menu, where customers were encouraged to fill in details of whom they wished to send the menu to, and the restaurant would pay for the postage. According to Voigt, some restaurants printed special menus as such for promotional purposes, and also encouraged customers to take the menus home as mementos.