Later this month, beginning on April 26 and through July 29, the Grolier Club in New York will host an exhibition of menus from the collection of Henry Voigt entitled A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus, 1841-1941. Admission is free, and there is a 124-page illustrated catalog for $35. [above: back of catalog]
Henry Voigt is also the author of a well-researched blog entitled The American Menu in which he provides background for the banquets, dinners, hotels, and restaurants associated with a variety of menus from his collection.
Selections from his collection to be exhibited at the Grolier Club include rare menus from the 19th century, such as one from Parker’s Restorant in Boston dated June 29, 1842. In the catalog Henry notes that Harvey Parker’s restaurant occupied a basement, and preceded the opening of his better-known Parker House in 1855. Most of the main dishes offered that day in June, such as Chicken with Oyster Sauce, cost 37½ cents. Half of the Restorant’s Bill of Fare is devoted to a wide range of wines, with Congress Water for the probably rare non-drinkers.
The majority of the menus to be shown are from the 19th century and cover a range of types of eating places and occasions. As is the case of menus for banquets held in honor of distinguished guests, many are from hotels which, after all, generally provided the finest facilities throughout the early period. But visitors will also appreciate seeing Bills of Fare from less grand “Eating Houses,” such as that operated in New York by Sandy Welsh.
Also of particular interest to me are two early 1860s menus from Taylor’s Saloon in New York, a place frequented by women patrons where it was fashionable to see and be seen. It was grand-iose in its decor and pretensions. In the catalog Henry quotes an 1859 travel book which describes its marble tile floor, ornamental bronze ceilings, profuse gilding, giant mirrors, and richly upholstered seating. Not surprisingly it was sometimes ridiculed, notably by the witty culture-critic who wrote under the pen-name Fanny Fern.
It’s hard to stop listing all the gems in the exhibit, but in the 20th century there are specimens from a quick lunch, a vegetarian restaurant, Delmonico’s in its fading years, Bernarr Macfadden’s One-Cent Restaurant of the Depression, and Smalls’ Paradise Cabaret in Harlem. These are only a small sampling.
Maybe I’ll see you there?
© Jan Whitaker, 2023