Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
by Haley Temin, Associate Curator
We all have that one local restaurant. You know, the one where each menu item is accompanied by a desaturated, low-res image of the entree—a pixelated monstrosity that appears it might come to life and crawl off your plate should you dare order it. I’ve yet to have anything beyond a mediocre meal at an establishment touting laminate menus and questionable food pictures.
Astor House, 1843
So imagine my curiosity when I first came across the New York Public Library’s extensive collection of menus spanning over three centuries. This impressive archive offers a glimpse both at culinary history as well as the changing role of design, featuring everything from the fanciest of hotel restaurants to the diviest of bars. These examples from 1843 and 1905 show just how far menu design has come. Through these archives we can see an entire culinary history unfold—the earlier menus portray a classic, more refined look whereas the menus in the later part of the twentieth century burst with color and captivating illustration.
St. Mark Cafe, Venice, California, 1905
The history of the menu is a relatively short one, dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Before then, going out to a restaurant for a leisurely meal was a foreign concept—there were taverns and inns for travelers but meals were, in Europe and the US, by and large taken at home. Even with the advent of ‘the restaurant’, the menu was a very different thing—there was not nearly the range of choice we would expect today. But as the concept of ‘dining out’ has developed, so the menu has changed—catering (see what I did there!) to the prevailing tastes and culture of the time period. The menus below, from two New York restaurants (‘The Spotted Pig’ and ‘The Modern Bar’) reflect a current trend for pared-down ‘modern’ design approach, in stark contrast to the traditional, functional style of the nineteenth century menus above, as well as the vibrant typeface and illustration found in many of the mid twentieth century menus.
The Spotted Pig, New York, NY, 2006
The Modern Bar at MoMa, New York, NY, 2008
Our recently featured New York Public Library collection showcases menus of the 1950s. It was a tumultuous era—one that began with a sense of uncertainty but resulted in rapid economic growth and huge cultural and social shifts. The menus that span this decade are some of the most dynamic and vivid designs found in the archive, representative of people’s newfound enthusiasm for leisure and comfort, as memories of the wartime era faded. After sifting through most of the archive, I look at menus from this turbulent time, specifically Wilder’s (1953) and The Belvedere Room (1952) and really get a sense of the time period. Bright and striking colors and strong contemporary art and cultural influence, their designs are so reflective of a decade when the art of dining came into a realm of it’s own.
The Belvedere Room of the Hotel Astor, 1952