Category Archives: menus

Frank E. Buttolph, menu collector extraordinaire

It was Monday, January 1, the start of a brand new week, year, and century. A patron at the Columbia Restaurant on 14th Street in NYC’s Union Square experienced a jolt when she looked at the menu. “The first time I saw the new date 1900 on a menu it thrilled me as if I had been suddenly transplanted to the planet Mars,” Miss Frank E. Buttolph would later say.

It occurred to her to save that menu. She gathered more and soon realized she had the makings of a collection. She donated 900 menus to the New York Public Library, with an offer of 1,000 more. By 1917 she claimed to have amassed about 28,000 menus for the NYPL, and had spent countless volunteer hours cataloging them and stamping them with the now-notorious blue stamp.

Although I suspect she actually started collecting menus in the 1890s, Miss Buttolph would repeat the engaging origin myth for years, using it in press releases and interviews to inspire menu donations from near and far, even from European royalty. Menu collecting was not unheard of, but had not yet become the fad it would be a few years later. It was said that when she began to collect menus, “no one thought of it as anything better than a rather tiresome freak, on which a vast amount of energy was being wasted that might have been better expended.” Poster and cookbook collecting were likewise viewed as trivial pursuits.

Born Frances Editha Buttles in Mansfield PA, Frank’s father was a wagonmaker and undertaker who filed at least a dozen patents for common tools. Frank became a teacher and taught in Rahway NJ, Minneapolis MN, Scranton PA (where she briefly ran her own girls’ school), Bolivar TN, and Saratoga Springs NY. I haven’t discovered exactly when she moved to NYC, but by 1900 Frank was a single 56-year-old whose family was deceased and who knew several languages and had traveled abroad at least three times. Her source of income in NY is unclear. She taught Sunday school and did some tutoring. She declared she was a magazine author but I’ve never found any of her publications. Perhaps she inherited money.

Evidently she had enough free time to spend long hours in her library office, first located in the old Astor Library and then, after the new Fifth Avenue public library building was completed in 1911, overlooking Bryant Park.

Her name “Frank” has caused much perplexity. Did it imply gender ambiguity? Although I can’t prove it didn’t, Frank was not a totally uncommon nickname for Frances which gained popularity in the 1870s and 1880s. She was known as Frank as early as 1866 when she finished teacher training [pictured]. It seems she was not especially fond of either Frances or Buttles. She researched her family’s genealogy and in 1900 changed her last name to the more dignified-sounding Buttolph, of which Buttles was a corruption.

Frank collected all sorts of menus, from restaurants, hotels, steamships, and trains. She insisted that they be clean and rejected those from businesses she sensed were simply trying to get publicity. Many she preserved were from club banquets or dinners celebrating famous individuals. Most were American, but she also collected menus commemorating the opening of the Suez Canal, menus from royal courts, and from other exotic occasions worldwide. It seems as though the public was most appreciative of rarity, but I am grateful that she saved menus from everyday restaurants such as the Columbia, all the more so since it went bankrupt about two years after her fateful visit.

More on Frank Buttolph and her collection.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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A famous fake

. . . but not quite famous enough because many people still mistake the image shown here, dubbed “America’s first restaurant,” as a reproduction of a genuine Delmonico’s menu from 1834.

It makes me realize how little sense of restaurant history most people have because this “menu” (probably not a menu at all but a newspaper advertisement or handbill) is definitely not from the genuine Delmonico’s, one of the country’s most elegant establishments. In 1831 Delmonico’s expanded from its original status as a confectioner’s shop into a Parisian-styled “Restaurant Francais.” In stark contrast, the “menu” shown above (this particular example was used to promote a modern-day restaurant) originates with one of the lowliest dives in New York City. Plus it’s nearly 50 years later than alleged.

The prices shown are a fraction of what a Delmonico’s meal would have cost. The dishes shown are scarcely French fare. “Hamburger steak” was unknown by that name in the 1830s, first appearing in the 1880s. Although, like all fine restaurants, Delmonico’s could provide a guest with just about anything on demand, items like Pie, Crullers, Mutton Stew, and Pork and Beans would most certainly not have appeared in print. But then restaurants did not used printed menus in 1834.

The true status of the advertisement above was unraveled by Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost in an article called “A Menu and a Mystery” appearing in the Spring 2008 issue of Gastronomica. Recently, after consulting a book in which the fictitiously identified facsimile is treated as a valid Delmonico’s menu, I was inspired to dig up a few additional details.

After exhaustive research, Steinberg and Prost discovered that the likely origin of this advertisement was an establishment at 494 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan run by “R. Barnabo.” His was a place where the poor and down-and-out found cheap offerings, possibly acquired by the proprietor as leftovers from other restaurants and hotels.

The duo also discovered that the typeface on this document was not in use until the 1880s. They determined that this image made its modern debut as a facsimile of a genuine Delmonico’s menu in the 1930s, and was used in advertising campaigns for restaurants in the 1940s. Distributed by wire services, stories about the “legendary” low prices found on “America’s first menu” have cropped up as filler items in countless newspapers from the 1930s until the present. Syndicated columnist Hal Boyle made use of it repeatedly.

And yet nobody, nobody!, ever asked, “Can it be true that America’s finest restaurant served cheap doughnuts and whopping great halves of pies?” And hamburger, a despised food for the poor until mid-20th century? Pigs’ heads?

Here is what I can add to the story of R. Barnabo’s eating place known, perhaps humorously, as “Small Delmonico’s”: First, his name was actually Francisco Bernabo, born in Italy and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1882. He operated an eating place at 46 Franklin until 1879 when the property was sold and the restaurant was taken over by William S. Pontin. He then moved to 494 Pearl Street where he stayed until 1887 at which time he took a three-year lease at 6 Chatham-Square. He is listed at that address in 1888 but after that I cannot find a trace of him.

Strangely enough, the prices shown on this 1880s “menu” are actually lower than would have been found in a cheap restaurant of the 1830s. They are typical of the “5-cent restaurants” of New York City in the 1880s which were located in Chatham Square where Bernabo moved in 1887. He may have bought food secondhand, but it’s also noteworthy that in the 1880s the bottom ranks of butchers were selling the cheapest cuts of Chicago beef to lowly restaurants for 1 and 2 cents per pound. According to MeasuringWorth.com a 10-cent hamburger steak in 1884 would be about the equivalent of one costing $2.29 today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Celebrating in style

Take a good look at Henry Voigt’s site The American Menu to which he has just added an excellent post about how some people dined on New Year’s Day in 1885. He displays a truly sensational menu from the Coolidge Hotel located in the small town of Emporia, Kansas, where the Central Kansas Live Stock Association held a banquet that day. The menu lists some unusual dishes, with sauces and cooking methods whose names are quite unknown in the hallowed halls of haute cuisine, such as Fillet of Grizzly Bear, au Terrible; Prairie Chicken, Cyclone Dressing; and Peacock, Gaudy Gravy. There’s more.

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Find of the day: Steuben’s

I got lucky at a vintage postcard show this weekend and found this mid-1950s menu from a once popular restaurant in Boston’s theater district. Yes, believe it or not, Boston did have a downtown entertainment zone with night-clubby restaurants such as Steuben’s at 114 Boylston Street near Tremont, not far from another such place, the Hi-Da-Way. The neighborhood – which later came to be known locally as “the Combat Zone” — was eventually taken over by strip clubs, adult bookstores, and X-rated movie theaters.

The menu exudes a spirit of hilarity and puts Steuben’s in a category which I think of as the “nut club.” These were mid-century places where church-going suburbanites went occasionally to take a break from rationality and good behavior. It seems as though they proliferated after World War II — what you might think of as the PTSD therapy of that era.

Café Midnight was the part of Steuben’s that catered to the late-night crowd which often included celebrities performing in town who came there after their shows to unwind. At its peak, the restaurant expanded into five rooms, featured floor shows, Latin music in The Cave, and a radio broadcast by host Don Dennis who enthused about the restaurant’s cheese cake.

Steuben’s was established in 1932 by two Austrian-born Jewish brothers, Joseph and Max Schneider. At that time it featured a 63-foot long soda bar but clearly its opening was in anticipation of the much-awaited end of Prohibition. About a year later the restaurant was one of the first 114 “common victuallers” in Boston to get a full liquor license.

The restaurant was not kosher but it served dishes such as smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel, kippered herring with scrambled eggs, and chopped chicken livers. But the late-night menu also included standard restaurant fare such as steak sandwiches and grilled cheese with Canadian bacon. During the daytime Steuben’s Dutch dining room advertised lobster and turkey specials for shoppers.

Steuben’s closed sometime in the early 1970s. Co-founder Max Schneider, who also operated Ye Olde Brass Rail restaurant in Boston, died in 1975, Joseph in 1986. The brothers also owned the Blue and Gold Corp. which managed concessions at the Lincoln Downs racetrack in Rhode Island and Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Menue [sic] mistakes

The names of dishes, particularly if they are in an unfamiliar language, can be daunting to spell. Depending upon your perspective, discovering spelling errors on menus can be trivial, annoying, or amusing. Jane Black’s Washington Post column on mistakes she has spotted was funny to me, and got me thinking about errors I’ve seen while researching restaurants of the past.

Often menus were reproduced or reprinted in newspaper advertisements, in which case it’s hard to know who was to blame for garbled words, the restaurant or the newspaper. But given that newspaper typesetters were often more literate than the general public, I would think they corrected more mistakes than they made. In either case, plenty made it into print.

For instance:

Horne’s Restaurant in Macon GA prepared a special celebration dinner in May of 1859 which featured MAJONAISE of Lobster and, for dessert, SUFFLE (Soufflé). For a long time mayonnaise was an unfamiliar word that caused a lot of confusion.

Overall French culinary terms, intended to impress restaurant guests, posed the greatest spelling challenges but that did not seem to limit their use. Menus were littered with semi-recognizable dishes such as Giblets VOLIVEN (Vol au Vent — in puff pastry cases), BLAUMAGE or BLAMONGE (Blancmange — a vanilla pudding), Chicken COQUETS (Croquets), and Peach MERANGUE (Meringue).

Sauces and methods of cooking received rough treatment, as in the following: Croquets of Chicken FINNENCIER (Financière), Breaded Frog Saddles MAITRA (Maitre) d’Hotel, and Regon of Veal JULIEANN (probably Rognon of Veal [veal kidneys], Julienne). The last appeared on an 1893 menu from Delmonico’s Restaurant in Woodland CA which also featured Scallops of Mutton a la PROVENSIAL (Provençale), and Queen Pudding au RUM (Rhum).

Although foreign language terms were the most perplexing to Americans, mistakes were also made with relatively more common words such as TERREPIN, RABIT, PARSNEP, ASPECT (Aspic), BRASED or BRAIZED (braised), SHELLOT (Shallot), and BANNANA (Banana).

My favorite misspelling occurred on a banquet menu from 1883 which featured a sorbet course consisting of a gelatin shell resembling a glass ball filled with wine punch, referred to as a Fifth Avenue BOMB (Bombe). What a difference one letter can make.

Obviously menu spelling errors did not cease in the 20th century, though I found fewer on chain restaurant menus than on those of independent restaurants. The examples illustrated above are from about 1950 to 1980, from restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Corrected, the misspelled words would read: Parmesan, Du Jour, and Wienerschnitzel.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Menu art

Of all the art in our house – photographs, fiber art, oil paintings, and “found art” – nothing captures people’s imaginations like this sandwich menu board on my kitchen wall. No one has ever failed to ask about it. Everyone loves it. It isn’t even that old. I bought it at an outdoor flea market in Hadley MA in the early 1990s. The seller didn’t know much about it, but from all the clues I could gather it had been removed fairly recently from a humble diner or luncheonette in the vicinity of Ludlow or Palmer MA.

I took it home, carefully removed, cleaned, and reinserted each letter and number exactly as they had appeared, irregular spacing, colors, and all. I removed one line at the bottom – I can no longer remember what it said – and used the extra letters to form “Bart’s Eats” in honor of my partner Barton. Later, while on a brief visit to Milford PA, Barton and I walked by an abandoned movie theater where someone had smashed a similar type of signboard affixed to its exterior. Dozens of white plastic letters lay in the street. I picked up a few and, as a joke, added them to the diner sign to commemorate an indigestible dish I had once consumed at a Vermont inn. They were meant to be temporary but are still there. If you look carefully I think you’ll spot them.

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L’addition: French on the menu, drat it

In his 1904 Culinary Handbook, Charles Fellows pledged: One of my first thoughts in writing this handbook was to abstain from French terms. I said to myself, I WILL WRITE AN AMERICAN CULINARY HANDBOOK FOR AMERICANS. I have heard it frequently stated that the terms for the bill of fare could not be properly represented in the American language. I SAY IT CAN, and as proof positive you have it here. There are no French terms used for the receipts [recipes] of this book, and the headings as given are what should in my opinion be placed on the bill of fare, as perfectly adequate in describing the dish.

He was unable to keep his pledge. There are French terms throughout the handbook. On one typical page appear not only the fairly commonplace French words purée and sauté, but also béchamel, epigramme, haricot, matelote, saûtoir, and vélouté. He duly translates Chicken Chasseur as “Broiled chicken, Hunter’s Style,” but then instructs the cook to serve it with “sauce chasseur.”

Fellows felt that many dishes on restaurant menus went unordered simply because diners didn’t know what they were. This may have been true, especially since the dining public was broadening in the early 20th century, bringing unsophisticated but monied newcomers into  high-class restaurants.

French terms began to appear on American menus in the 1850s. By the 1890s their use was considered essential for luxury restaurants. But the tide began to turn around the 1920s when people started eating lighter, faster meals and menus were greatly scaled down, simplified, and rendered in English. The 1918 menu of the Tuxedo Rotisserie and Grill actually listed “Frog Legs in Paper Bags” rather than the dreaded en papillote. But, there are terms that remain today and still puzzle diners. Many of the menu terms below were not well known by most Americans in the 1890s, nor even 40 years later.

compote – a dish of fruit stewed in sweetened liquid, sometimes a dessert as was the case with Compote of Apricots and Rice which appeared on an 1893 menu at San Francisco’s Delmonico’s Restaurant. But I have also seen “Pigeons en compote” on an 1841 menu.

fricandeau – sliced meat or fish fried or braised and sauced, similar to a fricasée. In 1839 Fricandeau of Veal appeared in the French section of a menu of the Astor House, a first-class NYC hotel. This term is antiquated today.

glacé – according to Restaurant Menu Planning (1954), this word is an excellent one for menus, right up there with oven-baked and crisp. It properly refers to reduced meat stock that can be used to give flavor and sheen to dishes. Sweet Breads Glace was on the menu for a special dinner at the Rankin House, Columbus GA, in 1887.

jardiniere – Le Jardinier de Macaroni à la Italienne appeared on an 1843 Tremont House menu under Hors D’Oeuvres. In 1915 the Budweiser Café in Indianapolis IN offered “Fricandeaux (perhaps indicating by the “x” that there is more than one slice) of Veal, Jardiniere” for a mere 30c. Jardiniere indicates a dish served with a garnish of cut up mixed vegetables, perhaps in gravy. In 1965 the Armour Company advertised a new product which provided restaurants with flexible film pouches containing eight servings of braised oxtails jardiniere.

la financiere – Sweetbread patties a la Financiere as served at Fleischmann’s in NYC in 1906 undoubtedly were patties made from the thymus glands of veal or young lambs with a garnish or sauce of button mushrooms, bits of truffle, and possibly some cockscombs (yes, the red things atop roosters’ heads) with Sherry or Madeira wine.

maitre d’hotel – The Broiled Halibut, maitre d’hotel on the menu of New York’s Café des Ambassadeurs in 1905 was fish with a melted butter sauce to which was added lemon juice, chopped parsley, and a little grated nutmeg. The popular and expensive Jack’s in San Francisco dared in 1947 to offer Broiled Spring Salmon Steak à la Maitre d’Hôtel, giving the words their full accented treatment. (The menu also featured Tripe à la Mode de Caen.)

ragout – this word, now antique, was almost synonymous with French cooking in the early 19th century and critics always referred to it when criticizing French food for its overseasoned character which was believed to be unhealthy and induce drinking. In short it means spicy stewed meat and vegetables. When given a French name, western restaurants could sell stew at high prices to miners who felt they were living large. Ragout of Mutton appeared on a 1903 menu of the Occidental Hotel, Breckenridge CO.

rissole – According to Delmonico’s long-time chef Charles Ranhofer, in the 1890s rissoles were one of many items that could be served for the hors d’oeuvres course which followed soup. They were made of chopped meat, or possibly fish, vegetables, or even fruit, which was held together with egg, formed into a rounded shape, encased in crumbs or pastry, and fried.

quenelles – meat or fish forced through a small mesh and formed into balls, such as the marrow balls in the Green Turtle Soup aux Quennells a la Moelle served at the Central Hotel in Charlotte NC in 1896 or Quenelle of Calves Liver, German Style, served at Kentucky’s Louisville Hotel in 1857. Not long ago I attended a forum in NYC which declared quenelles, and the fancy cuisine they represent, totally decrepit.

vol au vent – a pastry basket from which a “lid” is cut and replaced after inserting a filling of delicately sauced meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit. The case is then baked. Sometimes found grossly misspelled on menus as in “voloven garnie de clams a la poulette,” which presumably is pastry with a chicken filling garnished with clams.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Basic fare: toast

Toast wasn’t really new on restaurant menus around 1914 but it was beginning to enjoy a bigger vogue. The soda fountain, often located in drug or department stores, was expanding into a lunch counter and as it did it added electric toasters to its battery of equipment. Most Americans still lacked electricity in their homes at this time so toast was something of a treat to them. By 1923 a new type of sandwich place, the luncheonette, had caught on. At the Tasty Toasty Luncheonette in New Haven a diner could almost certainly order a toasted cheese sandwich, an item once found only in English-style chop houses way before the Civil War.

Considering that restaurants in the early 19th century laboriously toasted bread by turning it slowly over an open fire, it is surprising that it was offered at all in those days. And yet Mrs. Poppleton, a versatile New York restaurateur, pastry cook, and confectioner, advertised in 1815 that she would provide refreshments such as savory patties, mock turtle soup, and anchovy toasts between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day. Beyond being an accompaniment to eggs, toast also did service in many an eating place as an edible prop for such foods as quail, creamed chicken, or asparagus. Buttered toast floated in oyster stews and bowls of milk (“milk toast”). World War I put a temporary end to its sidekick role when the Food Administration ordered restaurants to conserve wheat by not using bread as a garniture.

After the war toasters stayed perpetually busy in luncheonettes. An Omaha chain of lunchrooms advertised “National Toast Week” in 1923. The R and C Sandwich Shops boasted in 1925 that “Our big double-deck special toast sandwiches are the talk of Chicago.” The following year there was a special demonstration on how to make toasted sandwiches at the National Restaurant Association convention.

The novelty of toast wore off over time until the cheap steakhouses that sprang up in the early 1960s revived it. Their dinners of sirloin steak, tossed salad, and baked potato came with garlic toast (called Texas toast when made of double thick bread), all for the magic price of $1.19.

Today toast can still be found filling all its historical restaurant roles, with the exception of milk toast which has been replaced with milk and cereal. But its leading role is perhaps in the club sandwich. As a 1960 restaurant trade magazine observed: “The dry, crispy consistency of toasted breads improves flavor and appearance, and also makes the customer feel he is getting a more exclusive product.” This, the article noted, allows toasted sandwiches to be priced a bit higher than plain ones.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Department store restaurants

In small cities – and some large ones too – restaurants in department stores were frequently the best places to eat. Often they did their own baking and made desserts from scratch. It was not unusual for them to whip up mayonnaise and produce their own potato chips. Their kitchens were often directed and entirely staffed by women professionally trained in restaurant management.

They invariably favored home-style methods of cooking. Dishes popular through the decades included chicken pot pies, tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad, club sandwiches, and frozen fruit salads. The dessert sections of their menus were lengthy — layer cakes, eclairs, and chiffon pies were always to be had. [see 1925 menu, Abraham & Straus, Brooklyn NY] If the diner wanted more sweets at meal’s end, she could always pick up a box of bon bons or chocolate pralines made in the store’s candy kitchen. In the 1950s and 1960s menus cropped up with diet specials such as vegetable plates and cottage cheese salads.

To list the most famous department store restaurants and tea rooms (as they were often called) would be an impossible task, but among those that leap to mind are: Marshall Field in Chicago (which ran 11 restaurants simultaneously at one point and might serve as many as 10,000 meals on an especially busy Saturday before Christmas); Wanamaker’s Grand Crystal Tea Room; Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage in New York City (liverwurst and lettuce on rye); Altman’s Charleston Garden (“no tipping please”); Rich’s Magnolia Room; Higbee’s Silver Grille; and G. Fox’s Connecticut Room (which served Guernsey milk fresh from the store’s Auerfarm dairy).

By the late 1960s, modernity made department store restaurants obsolete. The times had changed and so had the pace of life. Women no longer had time to linger. Men who had once enjoyed eating in department store “grill” rooms reserved especially for them also moved on to quicker venues. Stores closed or revamped their large, elegant tea rooms, switching to speedier Bite Bars and Cafeterias. An era had ended.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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