Thanks to the New York Public Library, which keeps an extensive online archive of old restaurant menus, we have a good record of what restaurant menus used to look like way back when. While it's possible to spend hours browsing those relics, here's a look specifically at the long-past menus of some of New York's classic that are still operating today. For comparison's sake, we've lined them up with their modern day counterparts, so you can see how much has changed over the years, and how much has stayed exactly the same.
All vintage menus reproduced courtesy of the New York Public Library.
The above menu was put out for a dinner honoring James Blaine (one-time Secretary of State). Despite being emblazoned with American flags, the dishes are utterly French. Ris de veau, canard rôti, laborious pieces montées, it's all there. But that's how it was in the 1880s. In America, fancy food was French.
There are still a few fussy dishes (chicken Epicurean, foie gras brûlée), but overall the menu went from being French to being, for lack of a better word, universal. Besides steak, dishes range from burrata with grain salad to yuzu infused tuna tartare.
Even in 1941, Keens was an "old landmark." Old school classics (that can be found on the current menu) like Oysters Rockefeller and the famed mutton chop abound, but the lengthy menu also includes some really head-scratching dishes, like curry. The classic cocktail line-up would not be out of place in your modern day speakeasy, but, can't be found at Keen's in its current incarnation.
Some of the original menu options are still available on the current menu (Mutton Chop, Oysters Rockefeller), but the selections have been enormously pared down across all sections of the menu.There's definitely no curry.
Frankie and Johnnie 1945:
Pub food at its finest. The section devoted to rarebits and unusual sandwiches (smoked tongue, sardine) is everything that is missing from gastropubs right now. And cocktail geeks have plenty to look at over on the booze list, which includes cocktails like milk punch.
The new menu is decidedly less daring: no tongue, but potatoes eight ways.
Great graphics that should be sorely missed (see below). Weirdest dish: Calf's Foot Jell.
The big hits are still around, but gone are the fried oysters and the variety of cheeses with crackers. Gone, too, are the days when a sandwich cost under $2.
Russian Tea Room
So this is just the wine menu, but the Russian Tea Room has had plenty of wild menu covers over the years. There are quite a few more of them over in the library archives. As for the food...
The coolest thing about this menu is that it was unapologetically Russian. It not only served stereotypically Russian food, but also represented the influence of a shared border with the Middle East: Shashlik, halvah etc. These items can be proudly served at a Russian restaurant.
The current menu abandons tradition (at times) to offer such modern dishes as seared tuna accompanied by heirloom tomatoes and a watermelon panzanella.
Chop suey is definitely the section that ages this menu. But also note the half chicken, steak, and lamb chops in the "American" section, not to mention the bacon and egg sandwich. Drinks are also a dead giveaway.The complete lack of lychee martinis in favor of more serious cocktails shows how much things have changed.
Before the restaurant menu seemed like Chinese-American fusion. Now it's Pan-Asian.
Fraunces Tavern was way ahead of its time with the farm-to-table trend: note the inclusion of the grove (Miller Jones) that the restaurant sourced its grapefruits from.
Tavern on the Green
Craziest items include: Major Grey's Chutney (popular ingredient at the time), a creme de menthe frappe, and frogs legs which, quite frankly should be on the current menu.
Now Jeremiah Tower's new menu aims to please the broadest crowd possible. It looks pan-American with a few, demure nods to Italy: Monkfish "osso buco," carbonara, and some requisite American fare.
Caliente Cab Co.
It looks, as expected, like Mexican-American food. It's more Mexican than American, with just a few dishes like nachos, chili con carne, and chimichangas, that question the Mexican purity of the restaurant. Was it any better back then than it is now? Who know. Note the saucy house rules, which explain, among other things, that "reproduction" with the servers is "strictly prohibited."
In its current iteration, authenticity is not even a consideration. Ceviche coexists with cubanos and burgers. The menu is expansive in its Latin American offerings, if somewhat imprecise in its claim as a Mexican café.