Why I've Stolen Over 1,000 Menus and What They Can Teach Us About Cleveland Cuisine 

The Watermark restaurant in the Flats closed a dozen years ago, but I can still tick off every appetizer on its outgoing menu. Marotta's has been chugging along for well over a decade in Cleveland Heights, but I know right down to the penny how much they charged on opening day for a plate of penne carbonara. Zinc Bistro lasted less than a year downtown, but I know for a fact that Friday's plat du jour was bouillabaisse.

I know those things because I've been stealing restaurant menus professionally for 13 years now. I'm not proud to admit it — and I'm sure it pisses off more than a few owners to hear it — but there was a time when I couldn't do my job without it.

My very first dining review for the Cleveland Free Times — Goodman's Sandwich Inn, R.I.P. — was in October 2001, long before smartphones, Instagram and the widespread adoption of restaurant websites. Back then, if I wanted to recall at a later date the entire contents of a menu, I had to memorize it, transcribe it, or steal it. Sure, I could have asked management politely, but that would have tipped my hand.

And I haven't stopped. My collection — an unwieldy accordion file literally bursting at the pleats — contains more than 1,000 menus from restaurants near and far, cheap and grand, living and deceased.

I am far from unique in that quasi-professional hobby. In fact, I'm part of a club, one that only became apparent after doing a little digging and chatting up others. Restaurant critics, it seems, are universal thieves. In our quest for total recall and everlasting memory, we steal, filch, pilfer, pocket, pinch and appropriate every menu we can stuff down our pants, in our purse, or down our boots. And we're not just talking paper pamphlets here. In my ever-expanding collection are wide placemat-style menus, triptych-type digests that open like French doors, and large, multipage laminated beasts — the sort you'd find at Cheesecake Factory. How those made it home, I am not at liberty to say.

Spend a little time with a comprehensive menu collection like mine and it begins to offer up value in ways entirely unpredictable at the outset. Like flimsy time capsules, menus are wormholes to a distant place and time, where dining trends, local restaurant history, social customs of the day and random bits of useless knowledge are preserved for later consumption. Or destined for the trash bin. Whatever.

How to Get Away With Menu Theft

Soon after starting down my current path as dining critic, I began dating my wife. It wasn't enough that I dragged her all over town to eat good, bad and just plain strange food — I immediately made her my accomplice. In addition to calling the restaurant and making reservations in her own name, Kim was fundamental in the concealment and extraction of menus. What she got for her troubles was a bossy companion who told her what she was having for dinner. All these years later, the only thing that's changed is the ring.

There are loads of ways to quietly abscond with a menu. It helps to start with an extra one, so in cases where a host does the seating — toting menus from the hostess stand along with them — I hide one and tell the server that we seem to be short one. In situations where the menu also serves as the beer, wine and cocktail list, we simply hold onto one after ordering the meal for "future drink reference." Mid-meal is a great time to request a menu "to glance at the desserts," because those are the ones quickly forgotten. In group settings, it is child's play to stash one menu, stack up the rest and hand them over.

Magazines, newspapers, napkins and asses make ideal temporary hiding places for purloined menus. When the coast is clear, the menu is folded up like origami and crammed into its permanent home, typically a coat pocket, pant leg or purse.

Because my wife travels frequently for work, the menu I need weeks later to review a particular restaurant is often buried deep in a purse pocket in Dallas, or Toronto, or Kuala Lumpur.

These days, Kim simply snaps a few pics with her smartphone and texts me the images, but in days past she also has photocopied and faxed them, transcribed them or simply answered my annoying questions about pasta shapes and sauces via email.

The rise of restaurant websites hasn't meant an abatement of menu theft, as some might guess. For starters, it's shocking how many restaurants still don't bother to publish a website at all despite the fact that the web is always the first place people check when researching a place to eat — and that the absence of one is guaranteed to raise the hackles of Yelpers everywhere. But even when restaurants do manage to post and update online menus, it doesn't help me one bit if I ate there during a previous menu iteration.

Menus, a Witness to Cleveland Dining History

Long after restaurants close, I still have the menu, perhaps the lone physical evidence they existed at all. In the case of short-lived curiosities like Machu Picchu, "Cleveland's first Peruvian restaurant," a glance at the menu reminds me of long-forgotten nuggets of minutiae, like the obscenely misshapen Peruvian corn that our server, according to my notes, called "corn on steroids."

One of my all-time favorite assignments was dinner at Johnny's Room 24, a restaurant you had to visit to believe. Before shutting down in 2004, this dim and clubby chophouse dispensed $38 rib steaks from a few rooms at a long-shuttered Travelodge Motel. For 20 years, it was the place to be in Willoughby. Today, it feels like 100 years ago.

Menus also tell origin stories, like that of Phil the Fire. Long before he finally flamed out in Beachwood, he launched his chicken-and-waffle concept in the basement of the Civic on Mayfield Road. One day a week, Phil Davis hosted his Soulful Sunday Buffet, where hungry folks lined up for all-you-can-eat comfort foods like mac and cheese, double-butter peach cobbler, and his trend-setting (locally, anyway) fried chicken and waffles.

In the case of very special restaurants like Sergio's in University Circle, my 10-year-old menu manages to stir up memories of departed chef-owner Sergio Abramof in ways a photograph never could. On the specials menu from that long-ago meal is a dish we cherished but had long forgotten: Nantucket Bay scallops, described as "sweet and tender, simply sautéed in butter and parsley to bring out their natural flavor." I can recall with absolute clarity how excited Sergio was to explain the harvesting and transportation process required to get those scallops onto our plates in less than 24 hours.

I have menus of the same restaurant at multiple locations, like Phil the Fire, which moved from the Civic to Shaker Square to Prospect Avenue downtown to Orange Place in Beachwood. I also have menus for multiple restaurants in the same location, like the busy piece of Tremont property at 2221 Professor Avenue, which has hosted Mojo, Theory, Lago and Press Wine Bar since I started on this beat.

Chefs, like addresses, also tell stories, which is why I have menus from the same chef employed at multiple restaurants; they offer a unique glimpse into the development — or lack thereof — of a professional cook. It's interesting, for example, to compare the original Lola menu to that of today's. Over the years, chef-owner Michael Symon has jettisoned most of his Asian-influenced dishes like coriander-crusted tuna or tuna tartar with seaweed salad to focus more on his Midwestern roots. But throughout it all, his macaroni and cheese with roasted chicken, goat cheese and rosemary — first served at the Caxton Café and still on the Lolita menu — has been a staple.

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