Before restaurants had printed menus, dishes and prices were written on chalkboards or recited by waiters. It is believed that in 1834, Delmonico’s in New York became the first restaurant in the United States to hand out printed menus. Over the course of the 19th century, restaurants began to add more and more options to their menus, making the old chalkboards insufficient and the offerings too numerous to recite. Thus, printed menus became more common.
The first menus had direct, uncomplicated, and unadorned designs. However, special events and commemorative celebrations required more extravagant menu design to set the occasion apart. By the turn of the century, everyday menus adopted this full-on frilly Victorian treatment, with fancy fonts, gold-leaf embossing, ribbons, hand-painted imagery, and delicate die-cuts. The rise of Art Nouveau, and particularly the poster as a means of art and advertising, also influenced the look of menus.
At the time, dining out was still the domain of the wealthy elite, who could afford to eat at a restaurant instead of making all their meals at home. Around the start of World War I, though, Americans were beginning to move away from farms to urban centers for industrial jobs, and laborers would eat near their place of work. As more and more Americans purchased automobiles, dining at restaurants became more common...
Menus grew more important in the 1920s, as printing became more technologically advanced and restaurateurs saw the potential of the menu as a marketing tool. That said, menu covers were so low-budget that well-known poster artists rarely designed them. Menus never created or defined trends in art or design, they simply followed them.
Instead, they became a cottage industry for printers. The artwork was either provided by the restaurant (a high-end restaurant might even have its own in-house art department), created by the printer’s art department, or designed collaboratively by the restaurant and the printer. Stationers and mail-order companies also offered generic stock menu covers, which the restaurant could then stuff with typed or mimeographed menus.
Even in the face of the Great Depression, in the 1930s, dining-out options exploded as lunch counters, cafeterias, diners, drive-ins, and supper clubs popped up all over the country. The 1933 repeal of Prohibition brought about swinging nightspots and cocktail lounges. This energy and excitement around going out, combined with advances in commercial art, gave birth to the “golden era” of menu design, which ended in the '60s.
Restaurant trade publications of the 1930s asserted that the menu was an important part of dining-business strategy and a component of creating an unforgettable meal. Menus were devised as tools to create a mood, increase appetite, sell particular dishes, and explain the offerings. Stunning graphic treatment and design allowed small, family-owned cafes to compete with big-time restaurants.
Art Deco style, influenced by the Paris Exposition of 1928 and Jazz Age trends, was quickly adopted by establishments that wanted to convey that they were a young, fun, and modern place to dine or drink. Often restaurants (and their menus) were developed around romantic themes such as pirates, jungle safaris, Colonial times, or Persian or Grecian palaces. Restaurant personality could range from down-home steakhouse to elegant dining pavilion.
Restaurants that served ethnic cuisine relied heavily on familiar visual cues that represented an “exotic” country or culture. Most of these are based on racial stereotypes or caricatures that are offensive today, but reflect the misconceptions and biases of their era. Sombreros, pagodas, and pagan gods played into customers fantasies of traveling to foreign places. Up until the '60s, menus for restaurants serving traditional African American cuisine also employed racist stereotypes of blacks.
Die-cutting menus into unusual shapes was a relatively affordable way to grab customers’ attention. Seafood restaurants were often cut into the shapes of crabs or clams, wine lists might come in the shape of jugs, and children’s specialty menus might be shaped like toys or animals.
By the 1920s, menus could be printed on any material, and were found on napkins, placemats, or even metal skillets. Rancho Las Vegas even silk screened its menus on an oval-shaped wooden plank. Paper novelty menus could also have pop-ups, 3-D structures, or grommeted pinwheels. Other restaurants used paper tent cards to promote drink specials or new menu items.
Exclusive “fancy” restaurants that served the minority of wealthy folks who were still prosperous during the Depression (New York’s 21 and Hollywood’s Trocadero come to mind) had simple, elegant menus in Art Deco “high style.” Another way to impress hoity-toity customers was with a menu's size. Getting handed a giant menu became a momentous occasion itself. An oversize menu implied an abundance of choices for the well-to-do diner to indulge in.
Glamorous '30s nightclubs, meanwhile, tended to have more risque menus with partially nude or sexy dancers on their covers and perhaps an off-color joke or two inside. On the lower end, certain watering holes or lunch counters would use menu covers provided free or inexpensively by beverage companies that boldly advertised sodas like Coca-Cola or beers like Schlitz, Miller, or Pabst.
As more Americans took vacations in the 1930s, restaurant menus became prized souvenirs to remember a road trip—often, restaurants would offer customers scaled-down take-home menus specially printed for this purpose. Some clever menus incorporated maps showing the restaurant’s location in relation to popular tourist sites. Menus from train dining cars, in-flight airline meals, and cruise ships are all prized by collectors today.
Since these menus were usually pasted into scrapbooks, they often have glue on the back. While this isn’t ideal, the glue doesn’t necessarily diminish a menu’s value. Same goes for large menus that have been folded for storage.
Perhaps the easiest way to ensure customers would flock to your dining establishment was to associate yourself with Hollywood stars. Restaurants that catered to celebrities, particularly in Los Angeles and New York, were magnets for tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite movie actor. Dining hotspots in Miami, Atlantic City, Nashville, New Orleans, and San Francisco also attracted top-name actors, singers, and jazz musicians.
Some restaurants, like the swanky Sugies Tropics on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, went as far as to name items after the celebrities who loved them. Visitors to Sugies could order a “Dorothy Lamour” off the souvenir cocktail menu. Sports icons like Jack Dempsey, Slapsy Maxie, and Joe DiMaggio were shameless when it came to exploiting their own names to draw people to their restaurants and bars.
For the hottest Hollywood stars, Las Vegas was even more of a draw than Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard or New York’s Broadway. Casinos like The Sands, Flamingo, and the Dunes brought in top celebrities to perform, and other stars filled up the audiences. Most of the time, though, their menu covers eschewed celebrity endorsement in favor of Western themes or images of their hotels. However, in the '60s and '70s, hotels showcasing Elvis Presley made an exception, splashing his mug on menus for the Las Vegas Hilton and the International Hotel.
Menus from expositions, like the New York World’s Fair and the Golden Gate Exposition at San Francisco’s Treasure Island in 1939, are particularly collectible, as menu design was reaching its pinnacle and a wide range of ethnic food was showcased at these events. These cities’ hotels and restaurants, too, had special menus to commemorate the expositions.
The start of World War II in 1942 was a stumbling block for the booming restaurant industry, but only a small one. Dining establishments felt the sting of rationing, but stayed open, using their menu covers as a place to flaunt their patriotism, with images of star-spangled banners, bald eagles, and V’s for Victory.
After the war, servicemen returning home to their families made dining out more popular than before. Menus began to adopt modernist principles of simplification, and they switched from bright colors to a more subdued, sophisticated color palette featuring hues like forest green and cherry red. Script type, sometimes the only element of a menu design, became the standard. Photos, both black-and-white and color, depicting scenery, animals, or the restaurant’s building became more common, thanks to advances in reproduction techniques.
In the '50s, the sprawl of freeways and suburbs led to a more casual way of life, and self-service diners and “fast food” stands began to proliferate, as did free-standing coffee shops, called “Googies,” after the futuristic prototype in Southern California. New, family-friendly restaurants often focused a single item like pizza, steak, ice cream, or pancakes, and often their offerings were so simple, diners didn’t require printed menus.
Thanks to all the postwar optimism about the future, menus adopted the angular, stylized fonts and graphics of the Atomic Age—like starbursts, atoms, planets, sputniks, and boomerangs—which celebrated innovations in space and jet travel. Quirky and whimsical abstract patterns were also popular design themes meant to convey a young, stylish, and quick spot for a bite.
Even movie animations got more abstracted during the '50s, and this trend trickled down to the cartoon figures used on menus. Hamburgers stands, found all over the country, often used playful comic illustrations of burgers with faces or chubby chefs for their menu covers.
When Hawaii was granted statehood in 1959, a craze for all things Polynesian exploded. While “exotic” South Seas-themed restaurants like Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber had existed since the 1930s, in the '60s, grass shacks, tiki-inspired cafes, and backyard luaus could be found on nearly every street in the U.S. The menus for these establishments were adorned with palm trees, coconuts, hula girls, and tapa-cloth patterns.
By the '60s, the ubiquitous nature of fast food was bringing about the demise of menu art. Chain restaurants like Stouffer’s and Howard Johnson were comfortable and familiar to travelers, and their menus tended to be standardized and uninspired. Tall, skinny menus were used by restaurants offering light meals or snacks.
Still some menu designers of this period looked back at Victorian line art, wood typefaces, and Art Nouveau stylings. Others referenced the Art Deco 1920s or relied on self-aware kitsch. Some of the most creative menus were inspired by Pop Art or the psychedelic look of the hippie health-food movement. The decline of menu art continued into the early '80s, when interest in fine dining was revived again.
Menu-collecting is a relatively inexpensive hobby. One popular way of collecting menus is to accrue different designs, representing different eras, from the same restaurant, so that you have a set or series.
The most valuable menus were produced before 1920 or designed to commemorate historical events. Menus from world’s fair expositions and from well-known restaurants tend to be more valuable, as are menus associated with movies or celebrities. So-called “flaws” like stains, autographs, or personal notations don’t necessarily erode the value of menus that are particularly rare or valuable.