What could be more ephemeral that a restaurant? Most are out of business within two years. Even the ones that stick around eventually start to suck, or worse get really successful and popular and then start to suck. It’s no wonder folks used to ask for menus from their favorite restaurants to take home as souvenirs.
Nowadays, most menu collections are in the hands of collectors. That is, folks who spend their off hours rummaging through back rooms in strange neighborhoods. People who search endlessly for that special piece of crap that will justify their existence. People like me.
What gives this collection so much charm is its freedom from irony. Its curators were an ordinary suburban couple enjoying the fruits of the American Century, just like all their neighbors. They amassed menus as a way of preserving precious memories of pleasant evenings spent together. They also used them to appoint their homes with decor that reflected both their taste and their aspirations. I doubt they ever poured over the line work or paused to think about what their collection revealed about mid-century American culinary habits.
Most of the restaurants represented in this gallery are too old to even register a blip. There seems to be a Flaming Pit and a Harry’s Cafe in every town east of the Mississippi. Names like “white horse inn” are just too generic to garner any meaningful search returns. But others have a distinguished pedigree which continues to this day.
The Strater Hotel in Durango is still in business, and its website has a lengthy section devoted to its history. Don The Beachcomber has a cult of devotees. Unfortunately, the cover of my menu is already available at Wikipedia, but I seem to have an exclusive on the rest of its contents. A version of my Big Boy breakfast menu is available over at Janie’s Bob’s Boy site, but the one in my possession is from the Vips franchise.
My favorite of this group is the one dated 1933, from Ye White Horse Inn of New York City. Not only does it sport a cover by not-entirely-unknown illustrator Will Hammill, it also features the emblem of the National Relief Administration. One of the most controversial programs of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the NRA oversaw the creation of price ceilings and the regulation of employment practices. In the end, its codes proved to be unenforceable. The NRA was itself rendered ephemeral soon enough: the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional about two years after fear of boycott induced Ye White Horse Inn to display its blue eagle sticker.