100 Years of the American Menu

A story of dining through bills of fare for riverboats, railways, pioneering restaurants, and more
Courtesy Henry Voigt Collection of American Menus

Menu from Mark Twain’s seventieth birthday at Delmonico’s in New York City (1905). The bill of fare is illustrated with comic sketches by cartoonist Leon Barritt.

Henry Voigt believes we are what we eat.

“I have always been interested in food and wine, how culture is expressed in food and social customs, and the history of everyday life in general, all of which come together in these minor historical documents,” said Henry Voigt, curator of the marvelous new exhibition A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus, 1841–1941, on view at the Grolier Club in New York through July 29, 2023.

Voigt’s collection of more than 10,000 American menus is a major primary resource used by historians, writers, and critics. But like many collections, it is a never-ending project.

“For example, my collection still lacks an American menu that predates 1840,” he said. “While the odds of finding any one menu are highly unlikely, the collection contains numerous strengths on which to build. [My] recent areas of emphasis include women’s restaurants and forgotten culinarians in the nineteenth century, the impact of immigration, and economic precarity.”


Courtesy Henry Voigt Collection of American Menus

left: À la carte menu from Taylor’s Saloon, one of the foremost women’s restaurants in nineteenth-century New York City (1861–62). middle: Menu from the Great Western Railway, Niagara Falls Route (1881). right: Menu for President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. 

A Century of Dining Out is impressively wide-ranging, showcasing 227 menus and related ephemera. It features eclectic dining venues such as a Mississippi riverboat, railways, and a military encampment, as well as the bars and restaurants that started to become more common in the 1840s.

Highlights also include the only known copies of two menus from Taylor’s Saloon, on public display for the first time. The restaurant was one of the earliest places in New York where women were allowed to dine without a male companion. Its 28-page bills of fare from 1861 to 1862 are things of beauty. Inlaid with mother-of-pearl, they include advertisements for Tiffany & Co. and Barnum’s American Museum.

Courtesy Henry Voigt Collection of American Menus

1886 menu from the second Palmer House in Chicago that replaced the one burned down in the Great Fire. It subsequently advertised itself as “thoroughly fire proof.”

Another historic item is a rare surviving menu from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball on March 6, 1865, where the star of the show was a 250-foot-long buffet table and a huge cake in the shape of the Capitol Building. Also on display from the less over-the-top seventieth birthday party for Mark Twain at Delmonico’s in New York is a menu illustrated with numerous pen-and-ink sketches depicting the author at various stages of his career. It’s interesting to see through these menus what the great and the good sat down to eat, but there’s more to these objects than that.

“Menus tell us how people have eaten outside the home over time, which represents a large part of our daily lives,” Voigt said. “Menus reveal the symbolism of certain dishes, including those that denote class. The historical evidence, which goes beyond a list of dishes, also reflects social customs and societal values.


left: The Art Deco menu for Steinberg’s Dairy Restaurant in New York (1938). middle: The famed dance orchestra of the Blackhawk in Chicago illustrated on its menu (1933). right: Cathay Tea Garden in Philadelphia advertises that its guests can dance and dine on its ornate menu (1926).

Whether menus from the “antebellum haunts of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman” or the submarines that patrolled the Pacific during World War II, Voigt expressed a particular passion for the menus that evoke a story.

“Some menus survive from unexpected places, such as a Chinese New Year’s banquet for the prison guards at San Quentin in 1932,” he said. “Knowing who saved the menu and the circumstances under which it was saved can add a fascinating dimension to the story.”

These items are compelling, but with the rise of the scannable QR code, will the printed menu continue to exist?


The reverse of the menu for Mark Twain’s seventieth birthday in New York (1905), with illustrations of the author at different stages of his career.

“The printed menu has a future, even though its use will probably be more limited,” Voigt predicted. “It’s hard to imagine that machine-readable optical labels will be employed at expensive, upper-class restaurants where a tangible menu enhances the experience and occasionally doubles as a souvenir.”

Menu for the West Brighton Beach Hotel in Coney Island illustrated with a man holding a sign for the restaurant surrounded by depictions of flowers, food, and bottles

Prices range from 30 cents for raw oysters to $1.50 for a whole broiled chicken or a large Porterhouse steak for two on the menu for the West Brighton Beach Hotel in Coney Island, New York (1882).

Menu for the Gem in New Orleans from 1913 illustrated with a chef and a couple dining

A menu from 1913 for the Gem in New Orleans which operated in an old mansion on Royal Street from 1847 to 1919.

Menu for the Gem in New Orleans from 1913 illustrated with a chef and a couple dining

Gilt-edge menu card from a society event catered by Louis Sherry in New York (1884).

Menu for the Winthrop House Hasty Pudding club in Boston with an illustrated border with a floral design

A menu from Winthrop House in Boston for the Hasty Pudding Club (1852).