Friday, February 21, 2014

California Menu Collection

For a recent dinner held in celebration of a friend’s birthday, a group of us gathered at Joe’s of Westlake in Daly City. In addition to enjoying drinks in the restaurant’s classic bar - perfect for birthday festivities - we gathered to have our last meal at Joe’s, as the restaurant had recently been sold , the plan being a remodel of its mid-century design and a refashioning of its menu.  We recalled meals shared at Joe’s and wondered about what the changes would bring. We watched patrons stuff their pockets and handbags with matchbooks, coasters, and cocktail napkins, and we heard rumors that even menus had started to disappear!  Sure enough, a Joe’s of Westlake “last menu” is available on eBay at the time I write this.

As an archivist who frequently works with ephemeral material, and having just recently guided an exceptional intern through the processing of the California Historical Society’s menu collection, I found this rumor particularly delightful. Like most ephemeral items, menus evoke a memory of time well spent and the menus in our collection show evidence of this, with handwritten notations of the date the restaurant had been visited, and with whom, and little marks highlighting the entrees ordered and drinks and desserts enjoyed.

Menu, Coppa's Neptune Palace

But more than just great memories, many menus offered restaurant goers an almost fantasy-like experience. In an online piece celebrating Taschen’s publication of Jim Heinmann’s book Menu Design in America, Eduardo Santiago suggests that “illustrations on the cover of a menu told customers what the place promised.”   Coppa’s Neptune Palace offered its patrons the opportunity to dine under the sea, while Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber evoked exotic dinners on tropical islands in the South Seas. 

Menu, Trader Vic
Menu, Don the Beachcomber

Los Angeles Mexican café Casa La Golondrina, located in the first brick house built in Los Angeles on historic Olvera Street, encouraged its patrons to recall the early days of California. The small print at the bottom of its 1945 era menu, next to an image of a couple dancing in traditional Mexican dress, reads: In striving to maintain the traditions of Early California, we do not allow ladies dancing in slacks or men in shirt sleeves.

Menu, Casa La Golondrina

Of course not all menus evoke the sort of fantasy and promise of the abovementioned – some prove rather lackluster.  Such is the case with a Schwab’s Pharmacy menu from the 1950s. Rather than conjuring the old Hollywood hot spot where starlets are discovered sipping malts and screenwriters wait to refill prescriptions while munching on club sandwiches, the menu more accurately recalls the hilarious Saturday Night Live segment, Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.

Menu, Schwab's Pharmacy

Certainly menus are important keepsakes, but they are also valuable for the cultural and historical information they hold. Menus reveal food preparation techniques and trends – a 1921 menu from Marcell states the restaurant’s market conditions: Cattle: Mostly grass feed, fancy steer only fair. Fancy Lamb. Milkfeed veal (from Marcell’s Ranch). Our current food trend of locally reared and grass-fed meats is typically printed on many of the menus we see today, but Marcell’s menu shows itself as a predecessor to this trend. Menus also demonstrate the influence of world events and economics on eating habits. For example, many 1940s era menus in our collection proudly state that their prices are in compliance with OPA Regulations. These regulations, set forth by Office of Price Administration, were established during World War II to place price ceilings on agricultural commodities and to control the rationing of scarce supplies such as coffee, sugar, meats and processed foods.

In processing our menu collection we hope to facilitate a variety of research endeavors related to food histories, cultural trends in dining, and the histories of many important California restaurants. To learn more about the California Menu Collection see our finding aid made available on the Online Archive of California, and to view more menus visit the California Historical Society’s Flickr Commons page.

Jaime Henderson
Archivist, California Historical Society
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