As we shared the results of a survey around confusing menu jargon, we couldn’t help but wonder about the evolution of restaurant menus. Here, contributor Nevin Martell takes a look at how they’ve changed throughout history.
For centuries, when diners walked into an eatery, they simply ate what the chef was cooking that day. Slowly, as restaurants became more formalized, guests were given options for what they’d like to sup on. Paper menus codifying those choices first started appearing in the mid-18th century in Paris. What began as a phenomenon became an integral part of the dining experience around the world.
But don’t mistake menus as simply a list of what’s to eat. They have become barometers of the shifting tides of history. “They are a great reflection of pop culture, the eating habits of Americans, and a way to follow larger trends,” says Jim Heimann, editor of Menu Design in America, 1850-1985 and a collector with more than 6,000 menus in his archives. “For example, speakeasies in the 1920’s had coded language on their menus. It might say, ‘Ginger ale is available for your consumption.’ This meant you had a mixer for your booze. During World War II, there was an absence of a lot of items due to rationing. And in the 1960’s, you see artwork reflective of the counterculture.”