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  • Writer's pictureSteven Hansen

What’s On the Menu? 165 Years of Dining Out

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

A weary traveling salesman who found himself disembarking the New Haven train at Grand Central Terminal in the late afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, 1917, need not have settled for sardines and beer in his lonely hotel room. Instead, he could have ambled downstairs to the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant to enjoy the day’s special – Roast young turkey with cranberry sauce and chestnut dressing for 90 cents. Mashed potatoes and coffee with cream, 30 cents extra.

How do we know this? The New York Public Library owns the original holiday menu of that eatery. It’s part of the Buttolph Collection of Menus that consists of 25,000 archived bills of fare. And more than 19,000 of them have been digitized for exploring on the NYPL site – an immense smorgasbord of gastronomic history from 1843 to 2008. It’s one of the thousands of digitized books, maps, photographs, manuscripts and ephemera available for viewing on the library’s website.

The Buttolph Collection features menus from restaurants, cafes, diners, lounges, grand hotels, lodges, state dinners, private clubs, royal households, railroad lines, steamship companies, motels, airlines, casinos, and inns from around the globe. (Warning: do not delve into this collection on an empty stomach!)

Photos (above): Page 3 from the 1900 Columbia Dairy Kitchen menu. Hundreds of a la carte items were available to order; NYPL Digital Collections; (above right): Toots Shore Restaurant menu; New York City, 1943; NYPL Digital Collections.

According to the collection’s namesake, Miss Frances “Frank” E. Buttolph, the idea dawned on her over a January 1, 1900, meal at Columbia Dairy Kitchen in New York City’s Union Square. “I stopped in the Columbia Restaurant for lunch and thought it might be interesting to file a bill of fare at the library. A week later the thought occured, why not preserve others? As a result 930 have passed through my fingers to the Astor Library."

Photo: Miss Frank E. Buttolph; NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 4001636.

Her story is a quaint one that she used for years in promoting the collection in the press. But in reality, she had been madly swiping menu cards from cafes and restaurants in New York City for years. In 1899, she offered to donate her already large collection to the Astor Library for preserving as a record of what and where people were eating and drinking at the time.

The library director accepted Buttolph’s gift and her offer to manage and expand the collection over the next 25 years, as a dedicated volunteer.

Photo: Grand Central Terminal Restaurant and Oyster Bar; New York City, 2018; Maria Eklind/Flickr.

Photo: TWA magazine ad touting their coach in-flight meal service, 1951.

Miss Frank Buttolph, interestingly, was not a foodie. The New York Times wrote of her at the time, “…she does not care two pins for the food lists on her menus, but their historic interest means everything.”

Photo: Horn & Hardart Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan, by Berenice Abbott; February 10, 1936; NYPL Photography Collection.

Buttolph surged forward on her mission of collecting and preserving menu samples with a passion. She wrote hundreds of letters to restaurant, bar, and café owners requesting copies of their cartes du jour. She was also known to barge her way into private hotel events and demand copies of the souvenir menus. She also placed classified ads in magazines and newspapers seeking menu donations. Ads she paid for with her own money. She was one-of-a-kind.

The zeal with which Buttolph conducted her one-woman project eventually wore thin with the rest of the library staff, as she was dismissed from the library in 1923 for her disruptive diatribes against whistling and messy desks.

But before her death in 1924, she sent this note to the library’s administrators: “For many years my library work has been the only thing I had to live for. It was my heart, my soul, my life. Always before me was the vision of students of history who would say ‘thank you’ to my name and memory.”

Photo: Grand Dining Room on the RMS Queen Elizbeth; Cunard Line Brochure, 1963.

The collection continues to grow today through additional gifts of graphic, gastronomic, topical, or sociological interest.

Photo: Steinberg’s Dairy Restaurant; New York City, 1941; NYPL Digital Collections.

Of the Buttolph Collection of Menus, Chef Mario Batali commented on the project website, “It’s remarkable to see menus being preserved and documented, for them to become a resource for future chefs, sociologists, historians and everyone who loves food.”

Some Highlights from the Collection

Delmonico’s is considered the first restaurant in America, not part of an inn or hotel. This is an 1899 menu from its original location on Beaver Street. Dishes invented at Delmonico’s would include Baked Alaska, Delmonico Potatoes, Delmonico Steak, Eggs Benedict, and Lobster Newberg.

Where Miss Frank E. Buttolph lunched on New Year’s Day, 1900. The bill of fare offers no less than 10 different oyster and clam plates, plus “healthful” ice cream sodas.

Photo: King George I of Greece and King Edward VII of England Toasting in Champagne by Paul Gustav Fischer; c.1901-10; public domain.

The menu for this Oregon Anglophile society meeting lists 10 champagne toasts to be drunk before the dinner commences.

20 different sandwiches available from 5 to 25 cents each, including the H&H Special made with ham, tongue cheese, or salmon for 10 cents. Most items were selected through coin-operated, self-serve windows – the original “fast food.”

Photo: Room Service at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel; New York City, 1932 -- the first hotel to offer room service; courtesy of The Waldorf Astoria; photo by Richard Averill Smith.

Quickly became known as simply the “Oyster Bar” at Grand Central. It has been in operation for 110 years. It’s vaulted ceiling dining room below Grand Central Terminal has become an iconic New York rendezvous.

Photo: The Cotton Club; Harlem, New York City, c. 1930;

The famous boozy, clubby hang for the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, Yogi Berra, and Ernest Hemingway.

This flashy Las Vega hotel menu could also be mailed home to the folks as a souvenir for 9 cents.

Photo: Tiki Room shown in a magazine ad for the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu, 1960s.

Featuring Pineapple or Banana hotcakes with coconut syrup for breakfast!

The "Queen of Soul Food" -- comforting mainstay for traditional homecooked meals in Harlem for over 60 years.

Cocktails came with a complementary deck of playing cards to while away the hours soaring in the friendly skies.

Header photo: Maxim's table set-up. Maxim's is the most famous restaurant in Paris;

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