Get lost in this archive of weird historical restaurant menus

Restaurants feel like a recent invention. Obviously they aren’t, but the idea of going to a place and ordering actual food from an evergreen menu is a more complicated process than we tend to think. Like, there are high-end restaurants in this world that fly in fresh lobsters daily. What an insanely decadent act of eco-terrorism! How did restaurants even exist before the ’70s?

We may never know the specifics of the dining experience in decades long past, but thanks to the generosity of the New York Public Library, we can take a peek. That’s because the library’s site features a peculiar and fascinating catalog called “What’s on the menu?”—it provides high-quality scans of thousands of menus from the restaurants of the 1850s to the 2000s.

For instance, let’s take a look at what we could’ve ordered at Kiasarge House back in 1873.

NYPL

Mmm, nothing like some boiled salmon and egg sauce! Or how about that mutton with jelly! My favorites are the things that are just subtly off. Like “macaroni with cheese” instead of “macaroni and cheese.”

If you look on the right, you’ll see that the New York Public Library has taken on the painstaking task of detailing every single dish on each of these menus, which means you can actually search to see how many times a specific item has appeared on all the menus in the database. Unsurprisingly, the most common entry across all eras is coffee.

NYPL

This archive has quickly become one of my Internet obsessions. Sure, it’s fun to stare at all the gross food, but menus are also one of the most innocuous encapsulations of graphic design in everyday life. When you page through these scans, you’re looking at exactly how the world changed with the times.

NYPL

NYPL

NYPL

NYPL

When you click on a dish, the linked breakdown also includes details on the average price, related items, and even recipes. It’s incredible.

NYPL

So next time you’re bored, or hungry, I highly recommend you get lost in this beautiful, state-sponsored rabbit hole. There are some positive, agenda-less things left on the Internet! Who knew?

Photo via Dennis Jarvis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Luke Winkie

Luke Winkie

Entertainment and sports reporter Luke Winkie has written everywhere from A.V Club to Vice, including Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Kotaku, Playboy, Mel, and Polygon.