140 Years of Menu Design

Like a starched time capsule, a menu preserves a moment.

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Like a starched time capsule, a menu preserves a moment — a day, the food on offer and the gastronomical aspirations of those about to consume the fare described. They’re mini narratives, slices of life told through the food on hand, the intention of the chef, and, of course, the verbal flourish of the menu scribe. In the age of Yelp and instant photo preservation, our menus often get pushed to the side of the table or too quickly returned to the server. They’re seen as a vehicle for the real show to arrive, when we’ll take out our phones, snap a picture, and share. But there was a time when a menu slipped into a jacket pocket meant a souvenir from a meal — a way of preserving the moment and solidifying a memory.

Miss Frank E. Buttolph started collecting menus for the New York Public Library in 1900. In 24 years with the library, she collected 25,000 menus. The collection has since built to 45,000 items, of which 1,328,781 dishes have been transcribed from 17,541 menus (as of writing). They’re showcases of places long gone, or institutions now long-established. There are great moments of history — Christmas on Alcatraz, a meal onboard the Concorde — and there are the moments of fantastic culinary delight — Meat-n-Tater’s carne-heavy menu, or the 414 items available at Lindy’s. All look to capture the spirit of culinary adventure, and all draw in diners who, as the Gourmet Society writes, “have palates esthetically sensitive to good food and drink, and who have imagination enough to cherish the gourmet tradition.” – Matthew Ankeny

The Havana Hilton

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1958: American hotel chain, Spanish-speaking island, a French menu and a poorly timed hotel opening. Cuban revolutionaries would take Havana less than 10 months later.

Lindy’s

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1957: The Broadway diner attracted cheesecake lovers and mob hotshots. It also had 414 menu items, an offering not for those paralyzed by choice.

United Airlines

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February 14, 1940: Nothing says romance like parsley, radishes and beets at 25,000 feet.

Lum Fong Restaurant

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1940: The Gourmet Society achieves a level of pretense in a chinese food menu that hasn't been equaled since.

Astor House

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1854: New York's Astor House makes up for its age with the best menu material and no fewer than 9 different birds.

Alcatraz

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Christmas, 1929: Still a military prison at the time, Christmas dinner on "The Rock" really doesn't seem too bad.

Swiss Pavillion, New York World’s Fair

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1939: Geneva by way of Flushing Meadows, Queens.

Tam O’Shanter

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New Year’s Eve, 1949: One of Los Angeles’s oldest restaurants makes us wonder why the included New Year’s Day breakfast isn’t still a thing.

United Airlines Pittsburgh To Baltimore

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1963: 200 miles from Pittsburgh to Baltimore and there's still time for stuffed chicken and pineapple cheesecake.

Meat ‘N Taters

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1955: A menu largely consisting of meat, taters and more meat. Greens need not apply.

Mart Ackerman’s Saloon

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1856: We have a feeling Mart Akerman is a no bullshit kind of guy.

Concorde, Paris To New York

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1990: Three hours and 45 minutes, just enough time for a quick lunch.

Yang Yang Too

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1984: There's something very calming about how little about the New York City Chinese food menu has changed over 30 years.

The Pirates’ House

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1966: Savannah, GA, home of greats like the “Infra-red broiled hamburger” and the “King Neptune Seafood Platter”.

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