I was digging through a box in the Nicholsonian Archive last week and came across the thing above; a menu, actually more like a tabloid newspaper, from Twede’s Café in North Bend, Washington State, and as it says proudly on the front ‘Home of Twin Peaks Cherry Pie and A “Damn Fine Cup of Coffee.’ I was there years ago but the place is still in business as far as I can tell.
Menu options include ‘50 Burgers A to Z,’ though the first burger is Bacon Bleu, and the last Whoa Baby (a pound of beef on an eight inch bun), so that’s actually B to W.
The Twede’s menu is one of the few items remaining from a stash of menu I once had. I suppose I was always a bit half-hearted about it, as proved by the fact that I got rid of so many of them, either when moving house of when attempting to make order in my office. Most archivists would in any case describe them as 'ephemera.'
Most of them I don’t miss though there was one from a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, which was a huge stack of duplicated sheets, offering essentially two separate menus, one offering food in the style of Chairman Mao, the other offering food in the style of Princess Diana. Whatever that meant. I remember the food being perfectly good and not nearly as strange as you might have expected. It really would be really great if I could remember the name of the restaurant.
I’ve been thinking about menus because I just read Rosemary Hill’s review in the London Review of Books of Menu Design in Europe: A Visual and Culinary History of Graphic Styles and Design, 1800-2000, edited by Jim Heimann.
Full disclosure – I’ve been edited at least once by Rosemary Hill, and there was a time when I used to go to parties chez Jim Heimann. I seem to think I even reviewed a previous volume Menu Design in America 1850–1985 but I can’t immediately find it.
At first glance the new volume looks like less fun the previous one, the Americans being snappier in these matters than the Europeans.
In any case, the golden age of menus may well be behind us. As Rosemary Hill writes in the review, ‘One of the more depressing aspects of the post-lockdown ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ phase was the abolition of the menu. On the dubious premise that handling them might transmit infection, menus were replaced, especially in pubs, by a QR code bathetically sellotaped to the table .. As often happens with restrictions imposed as emergency measures, it was not reversed when the emergency was over, having proved too useful to the people in charge. Pubs and restaurants struggling to get waiting staff have found it convenient to offload some of the work onto customers, who can choose and order as they will pay – contactlessly. The artistic heyday of the form, as the timespan of Menu Design in Europe suggests, was already over by the millennium, and the interesting menus have for some time been “the domain of serious collectors and institutions”,’ as Jim Heimann puts it.
In fact there seem to be a surprising number of menu collections and archives both online and in the real world.
I recall a fabulous exhibition, all of 20 years ago, at the New York Public Library titled ‘New York Eats Out’ displaying the Buttolph Menu Collection, ‘more than 25,000 menus assembled by Miss Frank E. Buttolph between 1900 and 1924.
I initially thought that Miss Buttolph must have been quite the bon viveuse to have visited enough restaurants to amass 25,000 menus but then reading the exhibition catalogue I discovered she actually acquired most of the menus by writing to restaurants asking for them, or sometimes by just asking at the restaurant door. This is Miss Frank E. Buttolph:
I also enjoy the Ira Silverman Railroad Menu Collection, at Northwestern University.
We all know that dining on trains is not what it was, but looking at some of items in this collection it would surely have been worth worth hopping on a train back then just for the visual splendor of the menus.
And of course to get a reasonably priced Martini. $1.35 and you get Amtrak almonds!!