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 ...

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

American Menu Collection

American Menu Collection

This NYPL menu collection is a window into American dining between 1851 and 1930. Includes thousands of menus, man… [read review or visit site]

Ephemera Blog

Ephemera Blog

Marty Weil's wide-ranging, in-depth blog on ephemera, including lots of great interviews with ephemera collectors. … [read review or visit site]

Ephemera Society of America

Ephemera Society of America

Great reference on ephemera... includes examples and descriptions of various ephemera categories, selected special … [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Royal Hawaiian Hotel & Restaurant Vintage 1950 Framed Menu Island Girl ImageryOnyx - Renault Leguna Touring Car - Btcc - A Menu ..1/43 ScaleUs Wwii Ration Box Menu #2 U.s. Army Bowl & Mess Kit Usa Gi Food Supply Ww2Lehigh Valley Railroad Vintage Dining Car Menu===black Diamond Express==Menu - Great Northern Railway, Dinner, 1930sJack Dempsey's Restaurant New York City Ny Vintage Menu August 1957 Signed?2008 Heisman Awards Menu.signed By 4 Ou Sooners Heisman Winners!! Extremely RareVintage Coca Cola Diner Men With Woolworth Laminated Coke Menu Free Usa Ship2014 Royal Liverpool 18th Green Flag And Menu Signed By Padraig HarringtonBurger King Super Powers Menu OverlaySouth Pacific Polynesian Restaurant Drink Menu Tiki Vintage 1960'sVinatge Titanic & Olympic Postcard Lot With White Star Line Rms Cedric Menu 1904Menu - Pennsylvania Railroad, Breakfast, Aerotrain Cover, 1956Menu - New York Central Railroad, General Menu, 1930s Or 40sCoca Cola 1903 Hilda Clark Menu Card Found Inside Victorian Scrapbook-rare Item!1950's Tahitian Lanai Menu Mailer From The Famed Waikikian Hotel Hawaii TikiJailbroken Ps3 4.78 Rebug Dex With Mod Menu Gta 5 And Bo2 AntibanVintage Starlite Roof Sir Francis Drake Hotel Tiki Bar Drink MenuVintage Menu: Late 1800s Railroad Dining Car Service Menu Connecticut River LineRare Canopic Menu - White Star LineImperial Airways Empire Flying Boat 'rma. Corsair' - Breakfast Menu Card - Rare1918 Wwi Christmas Dinner Menu Card, Company K 11th Infantry A. E. F. LuxemburgOriginal California Zephyr Luncheon & Beverage-menu-1950-michigan Avenue ChicagoBurger King Super Powers Menu Overlay Batman Wonder Woman Superman Darkseid!Elvis Presley Sahara Tahoe Souvenier MenuDinner Menu Honoring Santa Fe Railroad&american Locomotive Co.sept.24,1946Vintage Hawaiin Royal Hotel Surf Room Menu Souviner Waikiki Honolulu HawaiiN. & W. Ry. Rare 1952 The Pocahontas / Powhatan Child Dine Car Menu - Rare,rare 1975 Ryder Cup Dinner Menu With Autographs By Palmer And CasperWalt Disney World Polynesian Luau Vintage Restaurant Menu From Official OpeningHoward Johnson's Vintage Breakfast Menu!! Excellent!!United Airlines C1952 Airline Menu...includes A Stratocruiser Cutaway GraphicElvis Presley Summer Festival Souvenir Menu 1971 Guc1941 Co "d" 502 Parachute Infantry Thanksgiving Menu RosterWindows On The World 1986 New Years Eve Menu 107th Floor World Trade CenterSanta Fe Railway - The Tulsan - Fred Harvey Dinner MenuVintage 1970's Original Elvis Las Vegas Menu Hilton Summer Festival Estate Find Mcdonald's Cash Register, Calculator, Play Food, Scanner, Intercom, Visor, Menu1934 Mount Lowe Tavern, California On Lines Pacific Electric Railway MenuHarvard University Class Of 1860 1880 Menu Tremont House Boston RestaurantVintage Restaurant Menu / The Colonial Home Of Fine Foods Jackson Ohio1919 Oceanic Steamship Menu Postcard Surfer Surfboard Riding Hawaii AustraliaOriginal C1965 Big Boy Menu 55cent Burgers Eat'n Park RestaurantHoward Johnson's Vintage Multi-fold Dinner Menu!! Excellent!!Autographed Boxer Jack Dempsey Menu Scene From The Godfather With Al Pacino1940s Western Pacific Feather River Route Exposition Flyer Dining Car Menu1934 Usc Football Team Southern Pacific Lunch Menu Lincoln Park Golf Links CoverRugby League Challenge Cup Final 1955 Dinner Menu Barrow V WorkingtonVietnam Era Lrp Lrrp Lurp Ration Chicken Stew Menu#5 Food Long Range Patrol Meal1940's Falstaff St. Louis Missouri Blank Menu Sheets Excellent Illustrations Rare 1927 Paulais **roaring Twenties Era *menu Hollywood And La *completeVintage Menu S S Lurline Matson Lines Eugene Savage Cover Hawaii 1954Vintage Menu S S Lurline Matson Lines Eugene Savage Cover Hawaii 19548 - Vintage Tops Big Boy Menu's - 1972, 1973, 2005, 2006 - Illinois LocationsOrg Wwii Camp A Maintenance Battalion Camp Pickett, Va Merry Christmas 1942 MenuTrader Vic's Menu San Francisco - Oakland C1951 Holy Tiki 1971 Vintage Elvis Presley International Hotel Menu Neiman-marcus Christmas Menu 1959 - The Zodiac RoomVintage Mid-century Mermaid Tavern Menu Stratford Ct Merritt Parkway 1960s-70sBritish Airways First Class Lounge Menu Breakfast Concorde Logo