Food News

An Archive of Thousands of Old Restaurant Menus Is Our New Favorite Internet Timewaster

Larded Jack Snipe. Bermuda Potato. Hamlet’s Omelettes. They’re all real restaurant menu items from our past, and they’re all available for browsing at the New York Public Library’s dazzling new Internet time-waster, What’s on the Menu? An archive of digitized restaurant menus dating all the way back to 1851, What’s on the Menu? is rapidly approaching 20,000 food and drink lists from restaurants, hotel room service operations, cruise ships, airlines and special banquets.

Search for “Dallas,” for example, and you find a handful of menus for fancy dinners from the turn of the last century. In 1905, the Texas Yale Alumni Association met for an elegant meal of “Celeri,” “gumbo de volaille,” “Laubenheimer,” “larded jack snipe” and “broiled mallard duck on toast.” Gumbo de volaille was in all probability gumbo with chicken, since volaille is a French word that means poultry or fowl. Laubenheimer appears to have been a kind of wine.

The Dallas Democrats banquet in October 1907 was even more luxuriously catered. For one thing, the gumbo was oyster, not chicken, but guests also drank Manhattans and Mumm Champagne before feasting on something called “glace a la diplomate.” Meanwhile, down in Waco, one restaurant was advertising the irresistible-sounding “Potatoes Surprise.” The surprise is it's better than today's Waco restaurants.

But the NYPL archive covers most of the United States, and it yields a lot of fun insights. A hundred years ago, potato chips were still called “Saratoga potatoes,” or, at the Dallas Democrats banquet, “pommes de terre Saratoga,” after the town where chips were invented. In the 1920s, United Airlines offered a kickass menu of “Mignon of Veal, Russian Sauce, Baby Lima Beans in Butter, Bermuda Potato.” Whatever the heck Bermuda Potato was.
What’s on the Menu? is a great resource for idle browsing, too. That’s how we found out that in the 1980s, New York City had a themed restaurant called Mr. William Shakespeare’s, which offered Hamlet’s Omelettes and Bardburgers. The regular Bardburger is “plain but honest,” the Hamlet burger came with Danish blue cheese and the Othello burger was topped with black olives. Because Othello was black. That's some cutting-edge humor, there.

If you want to go full geek mode, try clicking "Under Review." These are menus that need a member of the public to look over the transcription and verify its accuracy or make corrections as necessary, a good way of nerding out over food and doing your civic duty at the same time.

There’s a world of difference between the food of today and cuisine from even two decades ago. But some things never change. One of the very first menus in the archive dates from 1851, at the Revere House, Boston. Now, 1851 was a year when Dallas was not yet formally recognized as a town. In 1851, Thomas Edison was 4 years old, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer in Illinois and Italy was nearly a dozen tiny independent countries.

But there it is on the Revere House menu, listed as a side dish: “Macaroni, with Cheese.”

What's on the Menu?, New York Public Library
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart