The 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.”
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?
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