The artistry of a restaurant is ephemeral—we order, we eat, it’s gone; a staff orchestrates a ballet of hospitality, from greeting to departure, and what’s left is, ideally, a happy memory and a feeling of enrichment. Also, menus.
A menu is prosaic, in many ways, but it’s a durable account of what can be—a thousand possible meals that haven’t happened yet, the weight of which is the bane of countless indecisive diners (and their companions).
The value of old menus—whether they are relics from banquets held a century ago or laminated, multi-page extravaganzas from diners that still operate—extends beyond the nerdy thrill of reading that in 1907 at Madison Square Garden, oysters on the half-shell were 25 cents—per order. Their images, fonts, and language offer a window into the sensibilities of bygone eras.
These are all from the New York Public Library’s digital archives, though not all of the menus in this gallery are from establishments in New York. Go here to learn the story behind how these menus (or the 18,964 in the Buttolph Collection) became part of NYPL’s collection. Perhaps it will inspire you to hang onto some menus yourself.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor, as well as a chef and former public library employee. She is the author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. Follow her on Twitter: @Sausagetarian .