Tag Archives: bill of fare

Menu vs. bill of fare

billoffare1876ClevelandThe short version is that Bill of Fare is English and Menu is French, and up until the 1920s the use of Bill of Fare was standard, but by the 1930s it had been almost universally supplanted by Menu. In a way it seems surprising that Menu won out and I wonder, was it because it’s shorter?

Commercially printed Bills of Fare were unknown before the late 1830s. But did that mean that previously diners had no idea what was being served until they sat down and saw what was being set out on the table? No.

As early as the American revolution, and no doubt much before that, public eating places (whether taverns, inns, coffee houses, or eating houses) provided a written list of what they were serving that day. For instance a New York paper advertised in 1777 that at Mrs. Treville’s “the bill of fare is to be seen in the coffee room every forenoon.” In other places, too, around 10 or 11 a.m. a list of what was to be served that day would appear.

How the Bill of Fare was presented is never described, alas. Since paper was rare and expensive then, I would guess that it was usually chalked on a board.

It is also interesting that more than a few eating places in the early Republic followed the (supposedly French) innovation of letting guests choose their dishes and pay accordingly rather than charging them a set fee for pre-chosen dishes. Baltimore’s Freemason’s Tavern and Coffee House in 1796 advertised that “A bill of fare, with the price of each article, will be fixed up in the public room, so that gentlemen may chuse [sic] their own dinners, at any price, from a quarter of a dollar upwards.”

In the cheapest eating places the day’s offerings were recited verbally at the door, presumably because most patrons could not read.

In the 1860s the word Menu came into use – often referred to in italics to indicate a foreign word. Special dinners and banquets at first-class eating places, such as Delmonico’s and a few hotels in the Northeast, were accompanied by souvenir Menu cards giving the dishes chosen for that event. Such a Menu, sometimes called a Carte du Diner, was often decorated with gold lettering, ribbons, and hand-colored illustrations.

By the late 1800s it was commonplace for the better hotels and restaurants to print a Menu, not Bill of Fare, for their special dinners, including those for holidays. Often some or all of the dishes were listed in French but this was not essential. As a manual published in 1896 called The Practical Hotel Steward explained, in American usage the word menu was popularly understood to indicate a “limited, choicely selected meal, as for a table d’hote dinner, a banquet, etc.”

BillofFare636

Bill of Fare remained in use up until roughly World War I, especially among everyday lunchrooms, such as Clerk’s (shown). It was so common, in fact, that it came as a surprise to me to discover an ordinary eating place that had no association with anything French using the term Menu in the first decade of the 20th century. What led Mann Fang Lowe on Pell Street, or Van Liew’s quick lunch, both in NYC, to head their list of dishes with the word Menu?

At that time Menu still carried an association with French terms and dishes – and with a degree of snobbishness that brought forth “just folks” humor such as the following from 1914:billoffare1914joke

But change continued nonetheless. In the 1920s, many restaurants switched from Bill of Fare to Menu, yet it was still enough of a transition period to produce some strange combinations such as an American, Italian & Chinese restaurant in St. Louis that termed its list an A La Carte Bill of Fare, or the Berkeley CA restaurant that printed Menu on the outside but Bill of Fare on the inside.

By the 1930s Menu had become the norm, with no suggestion whatsoever of any French connection, so much so that it didn’t seem a bit strange that drug store lunch counters used that term. If a restaurant wanted to put on French airs they would have to resort to Carte du Jour.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Taste of a decade: 1820s restaurants

Aside from roadside inns, most eating places are found in cities in this decade. With a population slightly over 150,000 New York is more than twice as big as its nearest rivals, Philadelphia and Baltimore, but most cities are considerably smaller. In 1820 only 12 have populations over 10,000, all of them along the East Coast with the exceptions of Albany NY and New Orleans LA.

Yet industrial development is underway. After a financial panic at the decade’s beginning, textile mills in Massachusetts begin large-scale production. The Erie Canal goes into operation with its completion in 1825, spurring commercial development in NYC. With the city’s expansion there is greater distance between work in lower Manhattan and places of residence, bringing more customers to oyster cellars and taverns. But New York still lags behind Boston in its supply of refined French restaurants.

Big hotels begin to be established, most notably Baltimore’s City Hotel (1826), Philadelphia’s United States Hotel (1827), Washington’s National Hotel (1827), and Boston’s Tremont Hotel (1829). In most hotel dining rooms it is still the custom to put all the food – soup, meat, vegetables, puddings — on the table at once. Except for the occasional banquet, menus are not printed. A list of available dishes is chanted by waiters or chalked on a board behind the bar.

Apart from eating in hotels while traveling, “respectable” women stay home. They avoid  public dining spots, especially oyster houses or cellars which are associated with heavy drinking and the burgeoning male “sporting life” of gambling and frequenting prostitutes.

The temperance movement begins. Since there is little separation between eating and drinking places, restaurants are targeted as sites of temptation and moral downfall. Religious publications warn readers that it’s a slippery slope from sipping “innocent soda water” in a pleasure garden to getting drunk in the oyster house or “the common grog shop.”

Highlights

1820 Aiming for well-off gentlemen, Dudley Bradstreet advertises fine venison, “a warm room and the best of wine” at his Phoenix Restorator in Boston.

1821 In summer wealthy New Yorkers vacation in Saratoga Springs and environs where they enjoy Wild Pigeons, Pike, and Bass “taken daily at the foot of the much celebrated Cohoes Falls” at S. Demarest’s Mansion House.

1823 A visiting Frenchman complains he cannot get French cooking in New York’s typical English-style chop houses. He pleads, “Will any body be kind enough to point out a veritable French coffee house or restaurateur in New-York, where ‘haricot mutton,’ ‘coutulettes a la maintenon,’ and sundry other dishes may be procured?”

1824 France’s marquis de Lafayette, friend of the American revolution, pays a return visit to the US and is feted with a dinner at Boston’s Exchange Coffee House which features an astonishing selection of American and French dishes.

1826 A teenager named Hawes Atwood opens an oyster saloon on Boston’s Union Lane which he will operate into the 1890s. (Still in business and now known as Ye Olde Union Oyster House, it is the nation’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation, looking very much the same as in its 1889 illustration above.)

1826 To the delight of a passerby who copies it in his notebook exactly as it appears, a sign at a Philadelphia oyster cellar captures the speed and energy of the spoken bill of fare: “OystersOPENED,ORINSHELLFriedorstuedBEER,PORtE,ALE”

1827 Swiss immigrants Giovanni and Pietro Del Monico arrive in New York and establish a small European-style confectioner’s shop serving pastries, coffee, wine, and liquor at 23 Williams Street.

1828 Black caterer Edward Haines opens a summertime Mead Garden on the corner of Front and Jay streets in Brooklyn NY.

1828 The editor of the Trumpet & Universalist Magazine applauds a Providence RI restaurant keeper who has “substituted at his Restorateur hot coffee in lieu of intoxicating alcohol.” “If a man must drink at 11 o’clock, he writes, “let him drink Hot Coffee.” (By the way, he is referring to 11 A.M.)

1829 Downtown in NYC patrons of the dark and dreary, but cheap, Plate House crowd into box-like seating and wolf down plates of beef and potatoes. Child waiters shout orders to the kitchen followed by the guests’ box numbers (Half plate beef, 4!). [Philadelphia oyster cellar pictured; note curtained booths]

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

Read about other decades: 1810 to 1820; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

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