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Top 20 Things We Learned About L.A. From Vintage Menus

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Fri, Mar 2, 2012 at 7:45 AM

Menu Design in America:  Front Cover

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.

Bob's Big Boy: Fat Boy Sign

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.

Menu Design in America: Children's Menu

17. Children's Menus Were Super Weird

And frightening.

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.

Menu Design in America: Sutton's Club Lido

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.

Menu Design in America: Mazey's Singapore Spa

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!

So-o-o

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.

Menu Design in America: The Pan Lad

5. Menus Looked Like Album Covers...

Menu Design in America: The Ebbtide

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.

Menu Design in America: Spago

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):

-playful

-colorful

-whimsical

-unique

-impressive

-inventive

-original

-vibrant

-memorable

How about all of the above?

1. The Editors at Taschen Are Geniuses

Enough said.


Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Follow the author at @ElinaShatkin or contact her at eshatkin@laweekly.com.

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