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.