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A guide to collecting vintage menus

We’ve all handled a restaurant menu but have you ever held one worth hundreds of dollars? Even though vintage menu collecting is a relatively inexpensive pastime, there are numerous antique menus worth four-figure sums and a handful worth thousands. The challenge for all menu collectors is finding surviving copies that are in good condition – by their nature, menus are stained, torn, and thrown away once the dishes and prices change.

But some survive, and in remarkable condition too. Vintage menus are collected for the following reasons:

  • A menu’s design and visual appeal,
  • A menu’s historical record of the food served and the prices,
  • A menu’s association with a person or people of significance,
  • A menu’s association with a significant restaurant or place, such as a cruise ship or royal palace, serving food.

Menus have not been around for many years. They may have originated in the stately homes of British aristocrats who would have provided handwritten instructions for what to serve. During the 19th century, banquets and events also saw the use of menus to help guests understand what was being served in the ‘à la russe’ service style where dishes are served sequentially.

Some collectors also prize of ‘bill of fares’ where ordinary establishments like pubs or hotels would document all their required food for a particular period of time – “one roasting pig, 27 ducks, 200 mince pies…” Victorian menus are hard to find. However, 20th century restaurant menus are easy to locate, especially from the 1960s onwards, and are probably going to be the starting place for any collector just starting out.

Restaurants and hotels serving food in a formal way exploded once travel became cheaper and easier. People needed somewhere to eat because they were away from home for longer. Restaurants gravitated towards travel centers, such as railway stations and harbors. Twentieth century menus show the changing style of art and fashion. Art Deco and Art Nouveau designs are common. Pictorial menus, with blank spaces for the dishes to be typed or handwritten in, were produced on a large scale.

Many restaurants were regionally themed and still are, of course. Their menus often used racial stereotypes of Mexicans, Chinese, and Polynesians. Also right into the 1960s, men were almost always paying the bill so imagery of women on menus could sometimes be sexual.

The expansion of America’s road network in the 1930s and 1940s, and the increase in ownership of cars generated numerous roadside diners and restaurants, which sometimes produced quirky low-cost menus that showcased American dining culture. Novelty menus, produced in odd die-cut shapes, are common. On the whole, menus are designed by little known artists. The exceptions being Alphonse Mucha, Charles Dana Gibson, HM Bateman and Edward Ardizzonne.

Menus increase in value when signed by a famous person. Restaurants in London and Hollywood commonly ask visiting celebrities to sign menus, which are then displayed on their walls. And don’t forget wine lists and cocktail menus – any menu from an early cocktail bar is going to be prized.

Collectors have so many options. There are also cruise ship menus, railway dining car menus, airline menus, banquet menus, and menus associated with particular regions, or periods of time. Bon appetit.

Examples of Vintage Menus

Beau Cedre menu, 1893 – $400

Most probably a menu for a Swiss restaurant. The lettering is almost modernist (but too early) while the military figures hint that a barracks could be located nearby.

Alphonse Mucha worked extensively on commercial projects such as menus

Various Alphonse Mucha postcard menus, circa 1900 – $95 to $500

Mucha was a prominent Art Nouveau artist but he also designed many adverts, postcards and other commercial illustrations. His work often featured beautiful young women in classical gowns and surrounded by flowers.

Diners had to crack the rebus puzzle to identify the dish

Handmade Rebus menu, December 25, 1900 – $175

A Rebus puzzle-themed menu cut in the shape of a leaf with a ribbon tie. Diners have to guess the dish by examining the pictures. The first page has a verse by Robbie Burns beginning with “some hae meat that caan’ eat And some could eat that want it.”

The beautiful cover illustration is the main appeal of this cruise ship menu

Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen Steamship menu, 1901 – $75

A dinner menu, likely from a cruise ship traveling the New York to Northern Germany route. The dishes appear in German and English.

His Majesty’s Dinner from February 3, 1901

Royal Banquet at Windsor Castle for Edward VII, 1901 – $725

Note how the courses are described in French. This was common in Britain right until the 1950s. Queen Victoria had died on 22 January 1901 and her monogram is displayed. Since this menu was used on 3 February, it must have been printed prior to the Queen’s death.

Royal Hawaiian Hotel menu, 1929 – $75

The Royal Hawaiian, which is still going strong, and Moana Hotels on the beach at Waikiki. The menu includes a note “to our patrons” stating that “a visit to the Hawaiian Pineapple Company’s cannery can be arranged through the front office.”

“The restaurant that captivated California in 5 months….”

Lucca menu, Los Angeles 1933 – $100

A pictorial menu from when America’s dining culture was rapidly expanding. Lucca’s was on the corner of Western Avenue and Fifth Street in Los Angeles (a location now occupied by a Carl Jr. drive-through).  The last page features uplifting messages from Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and also this reassuring message from the management: “If you are a steady patron of Lucca’s you will notice the complete absence of common gastric disturbances.”

SS Exeter became a troop carrier in World War II and was sunk by enemy action

SS Exeter menu, 1938 – $125

Fabulous Art Deco cover art. The Exeter was part of a four-ship fleet of passenger-cargo liners originally built for American Export Lines.

A World War II era menu from China

Chinese Restaurant Union Menu in Jiang Su Province, circa 1940 – $200

Printed on heavy card, this menu is printed in English and Chinese, so most likely for an officers’ club or similar location.

Ernest Doelter’s specialty was abalone

Pop Ernest Seafood Restaurant menu, 1943 – $158

“Pop” Ernest Doelter was an entrepreneur and restaurateur at the turn of the last century. He is famous for turning Abalone into an American delicacy, discovering its many uses and creating an entire industry around the food. Pop subsequently opened his “Abalone and Seafood Restaurant” and enlisted illustrator Jo Mora to create his menus.

A menu from the first restaurant in Los Angeles’ airport

Mike Lyman’s Flight Deck menu, circa 1950 – $82

The first restaurant at LAX, located on the airport roof of what was then the main terminal building. It hosted numerous celebrities including Groucho Marx, Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Joan Crawford, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, and countless other figures from sport, entertainment, politics, and business. Dishes include Hamburger Steak De Luxe ($2.10), Half Broiled Lobster, Butter Sauce, French Fries ($2.85) and beers for 65 cents.

El Morocco began as a speakeasy before becoming one of New York’s top nightclubs

El Morocco menu, New York circa 1950 – $1,250

El Morocco was a New York nightclub that attracted the rich and famous from the 1930s until the late 1950s. It was famous for its blue zebra-stripe motif, designed by Vernon MacFarlane.

Regional imagery was often incorporated into menu design

Aloha menu, circa 1950 – $47

A stunning menu from an unknown restaurant, probably in Hawaii.

A collection of menus signed  by the stars of London’s stage and screen

Collection of signed Cafe Au Pere de Nico menus 1956-1974 – $6,850

Eighty menus from this London restaurant, signed by visiting luminaries who dined in the Chelsea cafe for two decades between 1956 and 1974. Signees include Winston Churchill, John Gielgud, Mick Jagger, Laurence Olivier, Rex Harrison, Alec Guinness, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Marlene Dietrich, Omar Sharif, Louis Armstrong, Vivien Leigh, Richard Widmark, Susannah York, Sidney Poitier, Vincent Price, Richard Harris, Glenda Jackson, Anthony Quayle, and John Betjeman.

A menu from when the King of Iraq visited Britain

King of Iraq luncheon menu at London’s Guildhall, 1956 – $340

A dinner in honor of Faisal II. The intricate artwork on the cover shows the importance of this event. Faisal was executed in a revolution two years later.

The cocktail prices are appealing in this highly visual menu from the 1960s

Fish Shanty menu, Los Angeles, circa 1960 – $104

This LA establishment was on La Cienega Boulevard’s ‘Restaurant Row’, whose facade – an open-mouthed whale whose jaws surrounded the main entry doors – was made famous in the 1965 film The Loved One.  A lovely example of a simple eye-catching cover design from the 1960s.

A San Francisco landmark since 1914

Alfred’s menu, San Francisco, 1963 – $26

A steakhouse restaurant. Filet Mignon cost $5.25 in 1963. Opened by Italian immigrant Alfredo Bacchini.

A luncheon menu (left) for people with a head for heights and an embossed coaster (right)

Space Needle restaurant, Seattle, 1963 – $125

A menu from Seattle’s famous landmark. The menu identifies Kurt Wuest as the chef and features “luncheon selections” in the $2.50 to $3.50 price range. A folding flap on the menu features a golden embossed image of the Space Needle with, on the back, a drinks menu (Mixed Drinks $1.25, Highballs $1). Rear of menu states: “Opened on April 21, 1962.” This is a souvenir menu mailed off to potential customers, hence it’s remarkable unused condition.

A taste of 1970s Sydney nightlife

Les Girls Theatre Restaurant, Sydney, Australia, 1970 – $23

No subtlety in this menu and wine list from Les Girls, which was an important part of Sydney’s lesbian and gay scene in the Kings Cross district.

A menu from a Casablanca-themed restaurant

Casablanca Souvenir Menu, circa 1985 – $82

A souvenir menu from the Casablanca movie-themed Mexican restaurant in Venice, Los Angeles, founded in 1980 by Carlos Hara, Sr. and still in existence today. Included on the menu are “Play It Again Carlos.” The menu is affixed to a fan made of woven grass.

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