Developing a taste for restaurant menus


November 21, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers Solis-Cohen Enterprises Peter R. Solis-Cohen contributed to this story.

For Thanksgiving Dinner on November 25, 1875, at the Biggs House in Portsmouth, Ohio, the proprietors offered guests 11 different styles of oysters, wild turkey, five varieties of native duck, wild boar, venison, black bear, squirrel and buffalo hump, in addition to side dishes, cold meats, roasts, relishes, vegetables, pastries, confectionery, "fancy ornamental dishes," creams, jellies and desserts.

The 1898 Thanksgiving Day Banquet of the American Colony in Berlin, held at the Hotel Kaiserhof, featured venison as well as turkey, and the menu included two pages of patriotic songs for the expatriates to enjoy, culminating in a sing-along of "America."

A hand-painted colorful turkey image graces the cover of the 1926 Thanksgiving menu from Boston's Hotel Brunswick, which offered a $3.50-per-person dinner including grapefruit, soup, relishes, scallop Newburg, turkey or duck, six different vegetables, salad, dessert, cider and coffee. Pilgrims walking along paths through the snow decorate the Thanksgiving 1936 menu from New York's Hotel Greystone; the $1.25 nine-course dinner was served from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

We wouldn't be able to savor these tastes of Thanksgiving repasts past without collectors of vintage menus, including Lou Greenstein, a North Reading, Mass., culinary consultant and author of an inviting new book, "A La Carte: A Tour of Dining History" ($34.95 hardcover, PBC International, [800] 527-2826), which illustrates in color about 300 menus from 1860 to 1960 selected from his collection of over 10,000.

"Generally the earliest menus didn't survive. The restaurateur wrote them out by hand daily, depending on what he found at market, and they were useless the next day. Menus are a classic example of ephemera: Here today, gone tomorrow," Mr. Greenstein says.

Reservations required

Printed restaurant menus are a 19th-century phenomenon. Parisian restaurateurs introduced the "carte" to polite society, and by 1834, New York's famous Delmonico's offered a 10-page menu in English and French. A copy of that menu is in the collection of Louis Szathmary, a retired Chicago restaurateur, who in 1989 donated his larder of about 25,000 menus to `D Johnson and Wales University, in Providence, R.I.

Like many diners, Mr. Szathmary often asked waiters if he could take home his menu as a souvenir. He was overheard at dinner one night by a fellow who inquired if he was a menu collector (Mr. Szathmary didn't think of himself as one at that time), and offered him a cache of 1,200; it was his first quantity purchase, he recalls.

As sumptuous meal scenes in the movie "The Age of Innocence" portray, late 19th- and early 20th-century feasts included many elaborate courses for which diners needed advance warning on how to navigate their way safely from soup to nuts. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, guests at banquets and testimonial dinners began finding souvenir menus at their places, and menus served as both table decorations and dining guides.

Works of art

Some rare menus truly are works of art and are priced accordingly. "The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking through the Ages," by William Harlan Hale (Doubleday, 1968), shows that by the late 19th century, artists often were called on to illustrate menus, sometimes for money, other times in exchange for a meal. Renoir designed menus for his favorite patrons; Toulouse-Lautrec, a gourmet, sketched menus for meals to which he was invited; and even Gauguin gave banquets at his Tahitian retreat complete with menus he created.

More common printed vintage menus generally sell for about $5 to $100 each at book fairs or in bookseller's catalogs, according to dealer Marian Gore, of San Gabriel, Calif., who specializes in cookbooks and occasionally lists menus in her catalogs. The value of any menu depends on many factors including the popularity of the establishment, the event it commemorates (if any), its artist, rarity, graphic quality, condition (stains are common and undesirable), date, where it's sold, and whether it bears an important autograph. Pre-World War II menus are the most sought-after, but some collectors even are feasting on contemporary menus from fine restaurants and fast food chains.

When he eats in a restaurant, Mr. Greenstein generally goes home with the menu. To fill out his collection, he also frequents ephemera shows, old book shops, flea markets, yard sales, auctions and anywhere he thinks he might find a box of memorabilia stuffed with old menus.

Time capsules

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