I interviewed Eugen, Barbara and Charles who shed some light on these delightful works of art. Enjoy and bon appétit!
What do you consider a “vintage” menu? What time period does this cover?
COOL CULINARIA: The menus on Cool Culinaria are at least 40 to 45 years old. Most of them are much older. To be considered suitable for the site, our menus must also have great illustrations and graphics and provide a cultural snapshot of a particular era.
How did you get into collecting vintage menus?
COOL CULINARIA: We discovered, by accident, that America had a hidden treasure trove of fantastic vintage menus. We came across the collection of airline menus held by Northwestern University in Seattle and then we saw the University of Las Vegas’s fantastic menu collection. We thought more people should see this stuff because it’s so interesting and beautiful. There were many collectors in the USA, from the early 20th century, who had an incredible passion or even a mania for collecting menus. Miss Frank. E. Buttolph was probably the single most famous menu collector. She amassed 25,000 menus for the New York Public Library in 23 years. She was obviously an eccentric character because her “idiosyncrasies and negative behavior” led to her dismissal in 1924—but what a fantastic collection she bequeathed to the NYPL. And one of our co-founders, Charles Baum, has a fine restaurant pedigree, not just working in restaurants, but also with more than 30 years as a collector of culinary ephemera.
Where do you find your menus?
COOL CULINARIA: We are building relationships with various public and private institutions in the U.S. There are a number of private collectors (preferring to remain anonymous) who license their menus to us. And, of course we can’t resist collecting a few special ones for ourselves.
Why do you think vintage menus are so special?
COOL CULINARIA: First and foremost, it’s the art that makes them so special. You can trace this back to the 19th century in Europe (one of our favorite menus is the Café Anglais from Paris, 1890) when restaurateurs used artists to embellish their menus. Famously, Picasso used to frequent El 4Gats in Barcelona from 1899 and probably, instead of paying a bill, he gave an artwork which became the cover of their menu. In America, particularly from the 1930s and on through the 1960s, restaurant and bar owners paid great attention to the design and attractiveness of their menus. They regarded them as advertising and promotion for their establishments and encouraged people to take the menus or mail them to friends, with compliments of the establishment. During this era, most bars, restaurants and nightclubs were individually owned so proprietors were free to express themselves however they wanted. There was a tremendous outburst of imagination in menu design. Another thing that makes vintage menus special is that they are a cultural snapshot of a particular era. It’s fascinating to see what people ate, how food fashions changed and how much it cost to eat and drink in a diner or a restaurant. You can learn a lot just by looking at an interior menu. That’s why, on Cool Culinaria, we always include at no extra cost, a copy of the interior menu if it is available. When you read it, it’s almost as if you are back in that restaurant, sitting at that table. Vintage menus are little time capsules.
How many different designs or styles are there?
COOL CULINARIA: Precisely because individual proprietors expressed themselves so freely, its impossible to quantify the number of menu designs and styles that were produced. There is a huge range of styles. From the beautifully elegant illustrations of the late 19th century and art nouveau and art deco styles, then the boisterously joyous artwork of post-Prohibition America, the earnest patriotism that was expressed in the 40s, the Mad Men aura of the 1950s and the finally the hippie-dippie 1960s.
What are the most popular themes in terms of collectability?
COOL CULINARIA: From our experience, railway and all travel menus are very popular. Collectors snap them up because the design of the menus is usually wonderful and they come from a glamorous era of travel that is no more. Tiki menus are also much sought-after. Some of the prices Tiki menus go for are amazing –it’s a very specialized section that we don’t yet fully understand. Very old menus that feature game such as bear and possum and squirrel are also very collectable. Celebrity (particularly Elvis Presley) and Royal menus, particularly anything to with the British Royal Family, are desirable. But there is no rhyme or reason about what makes a menu popular or not. Collectors are not so much interested in what is popular as opposed to what their particular interests are. They have to have what they love or need, whatever the reason or logic. Collectors are, by nature, quite secretive individuals, so you don’t often know what drives the interest in a particular menu. It’s one of the many fascinating things about the world of menu collecting.
What are photo souvenir folders?
COOL CULINARIA: It’s easy these days to capture a good night out with friends. All you have to do is use the camera on your smartphone and click! You have a picture that you can keep or post to Facebook. Sixty or seventy years ago, many couples and groups of friends relied on official photographers to record their nights out in restaurants and nightclubs These were not celebrity photographers or paparazzi—they were photographers for hire, often sourced from agencies. Their assignment was to take photographs of ordinary customers for a dollar or so a time. Armed with a camera and a flash that would be laughably huge and hard to handle by today’s standards, the “camera guys” (often the photographers were women) would approach guests at their tables or on the dance floor and record the happy moment. Black and white photographs were developed in a makeshift darkroom in each venue so that guests could buy the images on the spot. This was a good source of extra revenue for many restaurants and nightclubs and meant that memories could literally be taken home.
Restaurants and nightclubs had their own folders designed and printed to hold these souvenir photographs. It made buying a photograph more attractive and it was extra advertising for each venue. Again, proprietors put a lot of effort into making these folders as attractive as possible and some of the artwork is as impressive as the best menu cover design.
Who were the artists that created these gorgeous illustrations?
COOL CULINARIA: One of the most challenging tasks on Cool Culinaria is trying to track down artists and illustrators. Some artists on menus are easy to spot – such as Andrew Loomis who created the glamorous mermaid sitting astride a lobster for The Oyster Loaf restaurant in San Francisco (1946). Then there is Edouardé, who created the beautiful art deco 1933 Blackhawk cover. We have tried to find out more about him (or her) but have drawn a complete blank. Sadly, many of the artists and illustrators of menus have disappeared into obscurity and that’s one of the reasons why we feel it is a privilege to bring their works back into public life. They probably thought their artwork would be appreciated for a few months or years and then it would be gone. They were wrong. Some of the illustrations are still as fresh today as the moment they were put down on paper.
Why did they choose restaurant and nightclub menus as a medium for their art?
COOL CULINARIA: We’re not sure these artists and illustrators deliberately chose to use menus as a medium for their art. Picasso probably gave the menu illustration to the restaurant in Barcelona in exchange for free booze or a meal. A few artists and illustrators probably saw it as an artistic challenge but the reasons were likely to be more prosaic for most—they did it for the food, free drink or for the money. Pre-1950s, it was hard for commercial artists to get enough work so they took on whatever job they could find.
Why do you think the styling has changed so much over the years, going from outrageously colorful and playful, to super-modern, using plenty of white space and lacking illustrations?
COOL CULINARIA: This is a subject that we debate a lot because we’re not sure what really happened. For some it’s the rise of the chain restaurant and the disappearance of the individual entrepreneur. Or is that restaurants used to be able to have a sense of humor but now in our safety-first culture the idea of putting a sword-fish smoking a cigar could get you sued or ostracized by the PC brigade? Like all art and design, and commerce for that matter, styles change as expressions of contemporary culture. And of course, the availability of technology has immensely influenced creative expressions of style in the 21st century. We also think now that restaurateurs put most of their money into the food and decor, rather than the presentation of a menu.
Speaking of, why is the Copa Room Wine List so subdued? Especially since it was the wine list for Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin Las Vegas shows. Why no pizazz?
COOL CULINARIA: That’s a great observation! We think it’s because Frank Sinatra had artistic approval over everything to do with the show and, according to legend, he didn’t like “fussy.” Our guess is that Copa Room wanted to present a cool and sophisticated image, which was a great differentiator in Las Vegas at that time. Actually, we wondered if it was too plain because there was no elaborate illustration. There are only eleven words on that menu cover and a simple star but when it is printed it looks amazing. Just looking at the names of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and imagining seeing these great performers in an intimate nightclub setting gives us a thrill. It’s one of our classiest offerings and very popular with our customers all over the world.
Do you have a favorite piece? What about a favorite illustrator?
BARBARA MCMAHON: It’s hard to pick a favorite because I love so many of them, but
A. Sabella’s with the gorgeous little dancing pink fish is my current number one. I don’t have a favorite illustrator. I like the fact that the work by these unknown artists, who probably never achieved great glory in their lifetimes, is being re-appreciated today.
CHARLES BAUM: I’ve always had a soft spot for Rio Cabana from the Concord Hotel in upstate New York in the 1950s. The menu cover features a Rita Hayworth lookalike with a come-hither expression and the design is reminiscent of movie posters of the 1940s and 50s era.
EUGEN BEER: Café Anglais from Paris, 1890. There is a wonderful innocence about the illustration at the top of this little menu. The child/chef is feeding the moon a huge chunk of meat from an over-sized fork. The word “Menu” is highlighted in gold, with beautifully toned clouds around the moon and the little fellow.
What is the most unusual food or drink item you have seen on a menu?
COOL CULINARIA: We love the Thanksgiving feast that was served to guests at the Windsor Hotel in St Paul, Minnesota in 1883. The menu is huge but it includes marechale of young black bear, saddle of antelope, possum, red squirrel pot pie and haunch of buffalo with Cumberland sauce.
Lastly, is there any modern menu that has caught your eye?
COOL CULINARIA: In the modern era, Milton Glaser has designed stunning menus for the Rainbow Room in the 1990s, as well as for Windows On The World, both establishments that Charles Baum was intimately involved with. Someone who is doing great work now is Louise Fili based in New York and coincidentally married to the great menu collector and expert Steven Heller, who co-authored the wonderful Taschen book “Menu Design in America”.
Thank you Eugen, Barbara and Charles! Here’s hoping some of the joy, playfulness, color and whimsy of yesteryear comes back in style.
Do-Good Postscript: The New York Public Library has amassed an impressive 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present, making it one of the largest in the world. The trouble is, the menus are very difficult to search for the greatest treasures they contain: specific information about dishes, prices, the organization of meals, and all the stories these things tell us about the history of food and culture.
To solve this, they are working to improve the collection by transcribing the menus, dish by dish. Doing this will allow the library to dramatically expand the ways in which the collection can be researched and accessed, opening the door to new kinds of discoveries. They have built a simple tool that makes the transcribing pretty easy to do, but it’s a big job, so they need our help. Feeling hungry?