On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the nearly 150-year-old Grolier Club stands in a grand 1917 building. It’s an invite-only society for bibliophiles. The club’s membership comprises almost 800 people and its exhibition spaces are open to the public, but the interior still feels frozen in time. Now on view in its downstairs library, hundreds of antique menus rest in lit-up display cases.
Grolier Club member Henry Voigt curated A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus 1841-1941, on view through July 29, from his personal collection of over 10,000 historical menus. The exhibition tells a succinct story of the White American upper classes in a textbook-style narration of history divided into themes such as “Railroads, Resorts, and the Old West,” “Prosperity in the Gilded Age,” and “The Great Depression and Recovery.” The meticulously curated show, which illuminates how restaurants speak to larger societal and political forces, also includes a smattering of bizarre gems.
Menus came into widespread use in the United States in the 1840s, when hotels popped up along the new network of rail lines. Before that, inns offered patrons a limited selection of homestyle dishes. The birth of menus, Voigt explained, marked the first time diners had a choice of what to eat, and they also changed the way people thought about food — diners could anticipate and look forward to a specific meal. As evidenced in the show, those meals included such delicacies as turtle, “mock turtle” (a concoction of brain and organ meat which Voigt described as “gelatinous”), and game birds including geese.
“Those dishes defined class,” Voigt told Hyperallergic. “They were revered not only for their taste, but also for what they represented.”
“This is not sustenance, this is entertainment,” Voigt continued, explaining a theory that the menu is merely a “prop” in the performance of dining out. That experience — one in which strangers perform hospitality — would have been novel to these 19th-century customers.
One of Voigt’s favorite objects is propped up in the next display case. It’s an 1861 menu from Taylor’s Saloon, one of the first restaurants to allow women without a male companion. (Voigt said this restaurant “astonished Europeans” who visited.) The menu is 28 pages long and includes advertisements for Barnum’s Circus and Tiffany’s, and its bound exterior is inlaid with mother of pearl.
“They had great ice cream,” Voigt said in a dig at the quality of the food. “You’re there, you’re being seen.” He called it an “aspirational restaurant.” (It was even included in one of Horatio Alger’s capitalism pornography “rags to riches” books.)
The “aspirational” quality of this restaurant emerges as a startling theme throughout the Grolier Club’s show. The menus represent far more exorbitantly priced restaurants than affordable ones.
“The material gets scarcer as you descend the economic ladder,” Voigt replied to this observation. He said people saved menus to remember special occasions or sentimental events such as first dates, but for the next generation, they don’t have the same meaning. Some of the menus are for personal small special events, including one of the show’s best works: A celebration of “J.B. Corn” (a nickname for whisky) on the eve of Prohibition.
Prohibition brings the show into sharp focus — there is a clear “before” and “after.” After the 1920s, gone are the upscale menus offering obscure delicacies, and instead, ephemera from diners and barbecue restaurants begin to make their way into the display cases.
The effect appears as a vast democratization of eating out, amplified when drive-ins began selling burgers for a few cents. A few decades earlier, Chinese immigrants began opening restaurants, and Greek immigrants started building what turned into the classic Americana diner. Both businesses were affordable for many Americans, and by mid-century, diners and Chinese restaurants were popping up in small towns across America.
However, the show pays more homage to novelty items or beautifully decorated works. The Great Depression display case includes many menus with eye-catching artworks that appear to have been designed to be saved.
“Who’s going to save a penny menu when you’re down and out in the Great Depression?” asked Voigt. (There are some utilitarian objects, however, including a penny menu and a cafeteria card.)
As for “fine dining,” Voigt thought the form bounced back from Prohibition in the early 1980s. Americans were traveling more, but they were also being introduced to new cuisines at home. Approachable cooks like Julia Child began promoting “fancy” French food as a realistic possibility for home chefs.
“These are improbable survivors,” Voigt said of the menus. As anyone in New York City could say, especially after the onset of the pandemic, restaurants close all the time, shuttering spaces where people lived their daily lives and also experienced important moments.
“Restaurants, they disappear without a trace,” said Voigt. “They just evaporate.”