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Menu Design in America

Massive tome celebrates 135 years of the humble menu

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

“25 Cents extra for each dinner taken without wine.” Menu for Café Martin, 1903, New York, illustrated by legendary poster artist alphonse Mucha.

Menu Design in America



We’ll go out on a limb here and assert that everyone reading Menu Design in America has read at least parts of at least one restaurant menu, which is all the background you need to deal with the subject matter presented in this large coffee-table book featuring reproductions of food and drink menus from restaurants, bars, nightclubs, events, and special venues (The Graf Zeppelin Hindenburg, anyone?) from the mid-1800s through 1985. One page presents a reproduction of offerings at a “Dinner Given by the Legislature of the State of New-York to Hon. Abraham Lincoln, President Elect and Suite, at Delaware House, Monday, Feb. 18, 1861,” an eight-course affair from soup, fish, and releves (whatever they are; the category here includes saddle of venison), through pastry & confectionery and dessert.

Aside from the historical trip you take viewing the listings of vintage food on offer, we’re talking about all kinds of food here, so don’t flip through this book on an empty stomach. You might get angry there’s no time machine included to place you and a charming dining companion behind menus at a joint like circa 1931 Oakland, Calif.’s Sea Cave, which states “Fish caught at 5 a.m. served here the same day,” and presents, in tightly packed typography, “Eastern” oysters done 19 different ways (plus “California or Olympia” oysters 14 different ways), 14 kinds of omelettes, and nine kinds of potatoes: French Fried, Cottage Fried, Lyonnaise, Shoestring, Long Branch, Au Gratin, Hashed Browned, American Fried, and O’Brien, drool. Or let’s have some “Supper a la Carte” at the Rainbow Grill on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Center in 1936, for an order of “Supreme of Chicken Jeannette.” We have no idea what that is but we’re sad we can’t have any, you know? We want to focus on the art and graphic design, and then our hungry eyes fall on the words “Creamed Capon on Buttered Noodles,” which they were serving at the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago, Ill., in 1945. Seriously, “Buttered Noodles,” growl. Speaking of missing a meal, artists and graphic designers have long been part of a symbiotic relationship with restaurants, not simply because at one time or another many artists and graphic designers have been hungry and may have traded their aesthetic and practical services for a series of square meals at a sit-down restaurant, but because, as writer and renowned art director Steven Heller states in the book,

As restaurants increased in number as more people could afford to eat out, and as eating out became more than a mere necessity of life, but also an integral American entertainment, the menu evolved into an essential tool, art form and commercial brand. The tool is obvious—what you see is what you can get. The art is more of an extravagance, yet as printing processes (e.g., color, die-cuts, embossing, complex bindings, etc.) progressed, experiments and novelties were routinely introduced. . . . the graphic voice, particularly when either boisterous or quiet, contributed to an establishment’s allure and mythology. The function of a menu is clear, but for many they were also the equivalent of luggage labels or dance cards, evidence of a gustatory journey or culinary tripping the light fantastic.

This book presents almost 400 full-color pages of amazing one-of-a-kind works of art created for a transient, disposable medium. Restaurant menus don’t stay the same for long. The best example of this changeability is the 1951 menu from Famous Seafood House Inc., (no location given) described in the caption: “A graphic nightmare, this menu has been amended with so many attachments that the original is almost illegible.”

The two-page spread displays a menu overlaid with a crazy quilt of added items, each on a stapled-on card, forcing the customer to pry back each card to see the original items underneath, but it’s as visually compelling as the “good”-looking menus, for all the worst reasons. It creates a feeding frenzy of dining possibilities for the reader.

Since this is America, you may not have ordered it, but there’s a steaming side order of sex in the form of voluptuous females to sell you on a meal at places such as La Joya, in Houston, Texas, in 1945, or Hotel El Rancho Vegas in 1942. Things get weird on the 1912 menu for Une Poule au Pot in San Francisco, which depicts three diminutive satyr-chefs apparently preparing to cook a naked nubile maiden who is in a minor state of ecstasy.

Taschen, the book’s publisher, is known for printing what is frequently described as pornography, so it’s unsurprising that there’s no filter on unsavory aspects of menus past. For instance, there are more than enough reproductions of racist-sterotype imagery on bills of fare for establishments such as Seattle’s Coon-Chicken Inn, circa 1935, along with a spectacular, crudely rendered painting of naked Negroes featured on the menu of New York’s Cotton Club in 1937, and, under a reproduction of one Mr. P.Y. Chong and the 1941 flags of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Mainland China, a pidgin English message purportedly quoting the titular proprietor on the menu of House of P.Y Chong, in Honolulu, Hawaii. The setup is referred to in the caption as “a clever marketing tool by its owner to capitalize on a regional and racial stereotype.” It reads, in part, “These 4 stlong peoples must stick together for keep peace in world always!”

Most of the menus in Menu Design in America are from the ’30s through the ’50s, and while there’s a copious amount of captions, it’s not clear from the text—a dryly informative one-page foreword about collecting menus by editor Jim Heimann, and Heller’s considerably more playful six-page essay on the history and significance of the American menu—if this is a comment on the design quality and historical significance of menus from the ’70s through today, or if it simply indicates the limits of collected menus available. We can only hope this is the first of several editions.

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