Top 20 Things We Learned About L.A. From Vintage Menus
We've been fans of Menu Design in America since it came out last autumn. It's big, beautiful and lovingly curated by Taschen editor Jim Heimann, an obsessive menu collector and self-admitted menu thief. Now that we've had time to pore over the book, which features plenty of menus from Los Angeles restaurants, we realize it's much more than a typical coffee table book. It's a socio-culinary history of Los Angeles: what we ate, where we ate and how we ate it.
20. Fat Mascots Were All the Rage
Before skinny was the order of the day, ventripotent avatars for Fat Boy, Fat Eddie's and Bob's Big Boy were powerful visual reminders that America aspired to be the land of plenty.
19. L.A. Was Hip to Health Food Long Before it Was Cool
Vegetarian cuisine was uncommon in 1902, but The Vegetarian in downtown L.A. was serving "oatmeal sticks," "dairy cream toast," "gluten mush," "fig bromose" and "protose steak." Yes, those were real items on the menu. At least the kitchen delivered what the restaurant's name promised.
18. Culver City Had the Hottest Nightlife
In the 1920s it did. It was close to the movie studios and just over the L.A. city line, so regulations and enforcement were less strict. Eager to cut a rug? Head to the Plantation Club, which was bought by comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in 1928 after a sex scandal ruined his onscreen career. He sold his interest in it a year later, after the stock market crash.
17. Children's Menus Were Super Weird
16. Before The Oinkster There Was Pig Stand
This barbecue drive-in, originally opened in Dallas, specialized in smoked hog meat but also offered "Hamberger," "Red Hots" and "Bear (Eastside)" on its pig-shaped menu.
15. Before There Was Super Size, There Was Chili Size
Inspired in part by the Chili Bowl chain with its distinctive round buildings, the phrase "chili size" was slang for an open-faced burger slathered in chili.
14. Menus Were Sexier
Where bohemian licentiousness meets Art Deco style, think fig leaves, scarves and artfully drawn, scantily clad women adorning menus.
13. Diners Were Cooler
Nearly extinct in many urban areas, the classic American diner once roamed the land like buffalo. One word, Angelenos: Ships.
12. Mexican Was More Exotic
While American and French food was readily available, Mexican food -- often rechristened as Spanish because that made it sound European and, hence, better -- was "ethnic." Casa Verdugo, a Mexican restaurant in Glendale, was a tourist attraction circa 1912.
11. Animals Exhorting You to Eat Them Are Always Freaky
At McHuron's Toed Inn, a massive, wide-eyed frog sat astride the roof just above the entryway -- at least it did on the menu. At Toad in the Hole, a filet mignon dinner with special sauce made of "only the toad knows" was served for $1. Even in 1943 that was frighteningly cheap.
10. Before There Was Planet Hollywood...
...There was Romanoffs. The story of how a Lithuanian-born check forger named Hershel Gerguzin became a supper club magnate is classic Hollywood: lie, schmooze, bullshit and lie some more. Backed by his showbiz pals Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Charlie Chaplin, Gerguzin, who at some point began passing himself off as Russian royalty, opened Romanoffs in 1939 in Beverly Hills. Throughout the 1940s and '50s, it was one of the city's hottest supper clubs.
9. Pasadena, Home of the Cheeseburger (Maybe)
Though it's not in the book, at a recent talk hosted by the Culinary Historians of Southern California, Heimann showed a menu from Sternberger's that featured the "Aristocratic Burger" a.k.a. a cheeseburger. Legend has it that teenage short-order cook Lionel Clark Sternberger, before he opened his own restaurant, invented the cheeseburger in the mid-1920s while working at the Rite Spot on Colorado Boulevard.
8. Menus Were More Racist
Serving Chinese food? Order up a nefarious-looking Fu Manchu stereotype. Serving barbecue or Southern food? Bring out the cartoon watermelons and mammy caricature.
7. Restaurants Didn't Mind Insulting Themselves
The menu for Keith's in Studio City (circa 1940s) noted that it served tough steaks, indigestible pork chops and disagreeable lamb chops. Also, the service was terrible and the knives were dull. But the best part of the menu reads:
If you must cheat -- CHEAT for your country.
If you must steal -- STEAL from an ad agency
If you must lie -- LIE for a pretty woman
If you must drink -- DRINK with us!
DRINK TO YOUR FRIENDS' HEALTH AND RUIN YOUR OWN WITH OUR BUM BOOZE.
6. Humble Beginnings
Before it was a restaurant in Hollywood, the Pig 'n' Whistle was a candy store in downtown L.A. That was in 1908, nearly 20 years before the Hollywood Boulevard eatery debuted, when John H. Gage opened Pig 'n' Whistle Candies on South Broadway.
5. Menus Looked Like Album Covers...
4. ...Except When They Looked Like Title Sequences Designed by Saul Bass
Find one modern menu that looks as cool as either of these. We challenge you.
3. Menus Were Made to Last
Restaurateurs couldn't simply reprint their menus on an inkjet printer every time a food blogger stole one or a patron splashed it with wine.
2. Menus Were Works of Art
Look at most restaurant menus nowadays: minimal graphics and little visual flair but plenty of words describing the food. Back in the day, menus were more (pick an adjective):
How about all of the above?
1. The Editors at Taschen Are Geniuses
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Follow the author at @ElinaShatkin or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.
More Food & Drink News
- A New Wave of L.A. Social Enterprises Serve Pizza and Coffee With Community in Mind
- SCI-Arc's Adorable Campus Cafe Is No College Cafeteria (And It's Open to the Public)
- In a City With Few Meat CSAs, Could This Box Be the Future of Grass-Fed Beef?
- Chef Phillip Frankland Lee's 10 Favorite San Fernando Valley Restaurants