Art exhibition To Live and Dine in L.A. is on display at the Los Angeles Central Library – a century-long showcase of vintage California restaurant menus, compiled from its strapping 9,000 menu collection.
The exhibit’s website tells us, in mildly pretentious if not historically self-important terms:
“To Live and Dine in L.A. tackles the timely and critically important topic of food justice, showing us how vintage menus can serve as documents that go beyond the table, acting instead as guides to the politics, economics, and sociology of eating.”
Not sure if the exhibit tackles food justice, but it does take visitors on a nostalgic stroll down the evolving path of the L.A restaurant business, as interpreted by its menus.
The collection can be seen in the library’s Getty Gallery, where oddly, the furnishings and walls have been saturated with buckets of Austin Powers-lime-green paint. Despite the Jetsons-era hue, the hundred of vintage pics, menus, and original restaurant gadgetry are fascinating.
The most striking change in the evolution of menu design? Most of the vintage, 20th century menus can be described as whimsical, creative, playful…singular, eye-catching marketing vehicles for the eateries.
Compare them to the current state of 21st century menus… painfully-plain, helvetican-typefaced, one-page lists delivered on sustainable, recycled, non-chlorinated paper sourced from managed forests. Descriptions of food and their cost, split charge, and their farm-to-fork relationships…period.
Today’s menus are reflections of their settings – the standard restaurant-interior design template can be categorized as urban-hipster-warehouse-industrial-minimalist-chic. Straight edges and right angles. Colorless décor with the exception of the chefs’ and servers’ tattooed arms.
However, thanks perhaps to the budget-friendly technology of printing and glossy lamination, there’s been no production slowdown of the multi-page, full-color-images menu found in coffee shops and ethnic restaurants. Using pics to help diners distinguish between Rau muong and Bun bo Hue is just good business.
Many restaurants during the last century printed free postcards with illustrations and location maps – patrons could share a tiny bit of their dining experience with friends and family.
Also it seems that restaurants of yesteryear found it important to have a theme. Polynesian/Tiki was popular of course. Seems that nautical, Hofbräu, jungle, chalet, western frontier, and alpine themes were also popular. Architecture, accoutrement, staff attire, and menus usually corresponded with the theme.
The Paris Inn operated downtown in the 30’s and incorporated both a French and Italian theme – their menu touted:
“Incomparable European cafe of America” located “in the Latin quarter near City Hall, mecca of foreign eating.”
The menu also promised:
“the most beautiful mechanical singing canaries in the world.”
Zamboanga South Sea Cafe and Nite Club maintained a tagline boasting:
“Home of the Tailess Monkeys.”
“Chinese Fried Shrimp prepared by our celebrated Chinese Chef ‘Murphy’.”
During WWII national patriotism commonly surfaced on menus:
The Carolina Pines Restaurant menu on Melrose reminded customers:
“Food is an instrument of war. Every restaurant operator and worker has been issued this WEAPON and delegated with a responsibility to CONSERVE it as carefully as ammunition.”
Fred Harvey’s Harvey House emblazoned their cover with color flags of all the Allied nations. The menu included the message:
“Ask for our complete list of AMERICAN wines. For victory buy United States war bonds and stamps. Meatless days will be observed Tuesdays and Fridays.”
Van’s BBQ Restaurant in South Central L.A. took things a step further, printing:
“War is War. Every defense stamp you buy pays the postage to SEND a Jap to HELL!”
The exhibit opened in conjunction with the release of a coffee-table book, To Live and Dine in LA: Menus and the Making of the Modern City. Author/editor/USC professor Josh Kun worked with his students and library staff researching the library’s hefty menu archives, and published what purports to be the first book to celebrate the menus of Los Angeles restaurants. (Angel City Press)
As part of this project, the Library Foundation will be sponsoring more than 50 food and menu-related programs at L.A. Public Library branches: nutrition workshops, cooking demos, historical “conversations,” in an effort to raise awareness of “food insecurity in contemporary Los Angeles.”
The exhibit is not exactly a ground-breaking guide to the “sociology of eating.” Nor does it show us the significance of tackling the “critically important topic of food justice.” It’s more of a blithesome toe-dip into a very minor, historical facet of L.A.’s past – the art is amusing, but negligible when you consider what this city’s been through in the last century.
L.A. Public Library – Main branch
630 W. 5th Street
Until November 13