Historical menus of LA restaurants, Japanese and more

As classes gear up for the Fall quarter I scramble around to dig up and compile all the cool images, flyers, posters, and other paper ephemera I gathered in far-flung places over the summer. For the last year, I have been teaching about Japanese food, both in Japan, and in LA. Two of my classes even grew a community garden brimming with Asian vegetables. In classes both with and without fieldwork, I try to link what’s happening in Japan to LA local contexts. The Los Angeles Public Library is a stealth archive of sorts that does just that. Many intriguing things at the LAPL are hidden in plain sight; one of the stealth collections is their digitized trove of menus from all over LA, from the late 1800s to the present.

One cool thing is that the first menus are not menus, actually–they are ads. (Earliest examples date from the 1860s, and are from a San Francisco restaurant, Lick House, and a cruise ship called “New York.”) Here’s one of the earliest, from 1886. It’s the Christmas menu from the Stevenson House, located at First and Los Angeles Streets, as published in the LA Tribune.

Christmas Dinner, The Stevenson House, 12/24/1886

Close on its heels, we have Al Levy’s Oyster House, in an ad dating from 1897,

From an ad in Greater Los Angeles magazine

which quickly morphed into Levy’s full-fledged restaurant,

Cover of menu, early 1900s

and stretched into relishes, strawberry au rhum omelettes, and theatre parties–but, cryptically, no lobsters.

Page one of the menu--only thirty-five cents for Fancy Roast!

It was the modness of some of the menus in the Japanese collection that caught my eye. Take the Downey restaurant Kyotaru (Sambi of Tokyo)’s cover, which has ‘sixties’ written all over it.

…and in whose inside lurks fusion-y ephemera, a photo of a frosted glass of Suntory draft being tacked into place by a Midori magnet:

and the whole spread from kushiyaki to salmon misoyaki to fresh fruits with ice carving (minimum 2 people).

Other images go for an artisinal folkness, like the Kawafuku Cafe,

or the festive woohoo-ness of the cruise ship, the SS Oriana,

Cover of 1967 SS Oriana menu

somewhat cut by the sober epigraph from…Heart of Darkness…? well, Conrad, never the sunniest of dinner companions, in any case~

wine with dinner, followed by a long walk off a short plank

And finally, a novelty from back in the day, when Yamashiro needed an adjective to convey its majesty–and that adjective was SKYROOM. This 1960 menu features a map,

and features your old friend “saki,” for a dollar.

Page two of the 1960 menu