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.
Menus, a Canvas for Change
My menus often are covered in notes, usually hastily scribbled down post-meal in the car. Some are as basic as "cash only" or "non-smoking" — there was a time when that mattered. Some are jokes or observations to be added later when I write the review, like when I ate at Steak on a Stone, a flash-in-the-pan dining concept where diners cook their own raw foods on a 750-degree granite slab. "Bring an apron," I wrote after my wife's nice work clothes became covered in sputtering beef-fat splatter. Some notes are seemingly insignificant details that may or may not find their way into the article, like the description of the "rattling and wobbly wheeled carts loaded with food" at Frank Sterle's Slovenian Country House. And yes, I make notes about the food, like the "juicy and never-ending supply of beef bulgogi" at Korea House, or the bibimbop, which apparently was delicious, but "hard work; lots of stirring!"
Menus, like clothing, undergo stylistic variations. Multi-page laminated menus gave way to humble one-pagers, which gave way to wide placemat-style numbers, which gave way to large broadsheet-like poster boards. Menus are huge now, but that won't stop me from folding them up like beach towels and cramming them down my pants. You'd think with the soaring popularity of chalkboards we'd see a sagging market for printed menus, but that simply is not the case.
One interesting tidbit teased from a decade-long collection like my own is the various ways in which restaurants propose we eat. There's the tried-and-true Appetizers, Soups & Salads, Sandwiches and Entrees — and then there's everything else. One Red Door in Hudson went with Bites, Crusts, Shared, Feasts and Sides. Toast's menu moves from small plate to large by going with Small Eats, A Bit More and A Tad Larger, while the defunct Henry's at the Barn moved from Colds to Hots. Flour takes the traditional Italian approach with Antipasti, Formaggi & Salumi, Insalata, Pasta, and Secondi. Greenhouse Tavern, in stark contrast, arranged its dishes in marching chronological order: Firsts, Seconds, Thirds and Halfs (sic).
Another change is the growing specificity in food sources. Look at a menu today from, say, Flying Fig and you'll discover that the pork came from New Creations, the grass-fed beef from Miller Livestock, the poultry from Tea Hills, the mushrooms from Killbuck Valley, and the shishito peppers from the Ohio City Farm down the block. Look on a menu from, say, 10 years ago and you're more likely to spot large but respected national brands like Bell & Evans, Neiman Ranch, and Jamison Meats. Go back a little bit further and you'd be hard-pressed to spot any farm names at all.
In general we've seen the proliferation of small plates and shared items invading the soup and salad real estate. Charcuterie boards, wholly absent from local menus a decade ago, are practically required by law now. Caesar salads and blue cheese-topped wedges seem to come and go like so much plaid. Pizza, once reserved for those quaint little places called "pizza parlors," now pop up on every other menu. Offal, a peculiarity found only at the occasional bistro in days past, now appears with as much frequency as sliced steak frites. Sides, those items that used be included for free with your entree, now run the entire length of the menu — each and every one of them another Lincoln out of your wallet. Bottled imported beer, of course, has given way to local and regional craft drafts and speakeasy-approved cocktails with ice the size of Rubik's Cube.
Birds of a Feather
For the longest time I assumed I was the only food-obsessed freak who maintained a large and growing collection of insignificant documents. But the funny thing is, there are loads of us — from the sentimental world traveler all the way up to the scholarly historian. In between are food scribes like me and G.A. Benton, a longtime food writer for Columbus Alive and the Columbus Dispatch. Like passengers in a speeding getaway car, we recently chatted about our shared criminal history.
"I stole them all the time — whatever I had to do, I'd do it," Benton says with adrenalin-fueled glee.
In his decade-plus of reviewing restaurants, Benton estimates he's walked — or limped, depending on the hiding place — away with hundreds and hundreds of menus. His tactics involved wearing heavy coats even during 90-degree summer days, stashing them in his pants or pockets, or, like me, enlisting the services of his significant other. "Yeah, I made my wife the bag lady," he confesses. "She was always stuffing them in her purse."
Unlike me, though, Benton no longer holds on to his menus once he's done with them. He has discarded almost all of his collection, in some cases by returning to the scene of the crime and surreptitiously returning the booty to its rightful owners. "If my wife did not despise my hoarding habits, I would probably have thousands," he says.
Elaine Cicora, my predecessor here at Scene and a James Beard award winning critic, penned 50 reviews a year for 10 years — and sure enough, she amassed a collection of menus roughly 750 strong. Like me, she began writing about food and restaurants long before smartphones and websites. But even after those tools came into being, she continued to swipe paper menus.
"It's still easier to just steal the menu," she says. "The dishes, descriptions, prices and all the facts are right there in front of you."
Like baseball card collectors at a convention, we giddily compare our anthologies. She boasts that she has a "Johnny's from '99, an original Classics, a rare Parker's Bistro." I counter with a rookie Lola, a faded Sage Bistro, and a Hi and Dry. If the restaurant existed in Cleveland during the past 15 years, either Elaine or I (and very likely both) have pinched the menu.
I've had pretty good luck when it comes to making a clean getaway, but poor Cicora hasn't always been so lucky.
"The only time I ever got popped was at Bistro du Beaujolais," she recalls. "I stole the lunch menu and was walking across the street. Georges, the owner, came running after me screaming, 'Give me back my menu!' I explained who I was and apologized. I was thoroughly humiliated, but to make matters worse, Debbie Snook [from the Plain Dealer] happened to be in the restaurant and witnessed the whole thing."
Menus, a Higher Calling
For proof of the larger significance of "silly old" restaurant menus, one need only grab a library card. Many public and private libraries around the country have entire collections devoted to the genre. Some maintain and cultivate collections that are devoted to their own city or region, while others take a more comprehensive and historical approach. That's the tack at the Cornell University Library, which isn't surprising given that Cornell was the first American university to offer degrees in hospitality management; to this day it offers the best such education. The Cornell University Library houses more than 10,000 restaurant and banquet menus, many of which were obsessively amassed by Oscar Tschirky, the famous maitre d'hotel of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City from 1893 to 1943.
But even that outstanding collection of bills of fare pales in comparison to the one found at the New York Public Library. Easily one of the largest compilations in the world, the 45,000-menu collection, which is housed in the Rare Book Division, is much more than a curiosity. It is a serious and essential research tool used by writers, chefs, cultural historians and anybody else who might want to know when pizza or cronuts first appeared on a New York City menu.
"Menus offer a visual chronology of American history and culture," explains Henry Voigt, who happens to know a thing or three about menu collecting. "They cover political history, economic history, military history, history of our foodways and social customs. They show the development of restaurants and the hospitality industry. There are a lot of different threads that weave through the history."
Voigt is the proud owner and assembler of one of the most important private menu collections in the country. While the number — north of 5,000 — might not sound all that impressive, it's the quality and nature of the menus that makes it so valuable to writers and researchers. When former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes was doing research for his book Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, which covers the birth and development of the New York restaurant scene, it was Voigt's exhaustive collection he relied upon most. He acknowledges as much in the back of the book.
"I always had an interest in food history, wine, art, culture...," Voigt says of his holdings, which include menus dating back to the 1840s, just 10 years or so after menus came into being at all, he notes on his site, TheAmericanMenu.com. "The things that get me turned on are the various societal customs and mores. It could be dress code, what time the meals are served, when the servants are served versus the others, even the sequence in which the dishes are served." All of it, he adds, can be found on menus.
Frankly, says Voigt, he's surprised by the size of his own collection. Other than banquets, special occasion dinners, and those exotic vacation meals, menus are not intended to be preserved. Most have survived merely by happenstance, like one from an 1892 African-American union ball held by the Tremont House Waiters Association in Boston, which he recently dissected on his site.
"The category is called ephemera, an item printed for a particular purpose that is not meant to be saved," he explains. "Menus certainly fall into that category. They survive only by chance, and there is only so much material to go around."
A lot less since I came around.
Reflection on a Collection
In preparation for this story, I spent more time with my collection than ever before. Thumbing through the grease-stained papers I was transported back to every restaurant, every table, every seat, every meal and, most importantly, who I shared it with. When it comes to memory, mine is one rung above that of a trauma victim. But there's something about picking up a physical menu that fires up the old neurons, sending me through the wormhole of time.
That certainly happened when I stumbled across a file marked "Honeymoon," filled, naturally, with almost every menu from that magical West Coast trip nine years ago. Kim and I enjoyed "Chicken for two roasted in the brick oven" at Zuni in San Francisco, grilled ribeye with red wine-braised leeks at Ravenous in Healdsburg, burgers and fries at Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena, garlicky escargot at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, and Tortilla Espanola at La Rambla in McMinnville, Ore.
My stupid old menu collection is like a lazy man's journal; it preserves moments in time with family and friends both home and away. If it's true that some of the best times of our lives are spent around the dinner table, my menus serve as the liner notes. Try doing that with a wedding album.