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The Allure of Restaurant Menus

Restaurant Menus.

Photo: John Lawton

Evolution of the Menu

1200–1275: Song Dynasty restaurants in Hangzhou, China, supply the first written menus to diners flush with newly invented paper currency. Choices include bean-curd soup and silkworm pie.

1773: In France, so-called maisons de santé, or “health houses,” offer a sit-down restaurant experience in a clean environment.

1837: Delmonico’s, in New York City, becomes the first American establishment to describe itself with the French term restaurant and prints the first U.S. menu. Oysters Rockefeller is featured prominently, as it is to this day.

1867: The age of steam…and romance! Diners in luxurious Pullman railroad cars, made in Chicago, are offered menus and served lavish, freshly prepared meals.

1936: United Airlines sets up the first flight kitchen in Oakland, California, and distributes printed menus on board. Philosophers and game theorists begin decades-long analysis of the statement, “We apologize in advance if your selection isn’t available.”

1945: Allied soldiers occupying Japan after World War II are baffled by local menus. Enterprising restaurateurs hire candlemakers to create illustrative wax models of every dish. The tradition lives on today, in plastic.

1950: A period of prosperity and general social upheaval sees the invention and rapid proliferation of menus for children. Word-search puzzles and easy-to-solve mazes follow shortly after.

1988: American Airlines launches its Chef’s Conclave with Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, among others, introducing the first celebrity-chef–designed airline menus.

2001: Menus go digital: pizza chains Domino’s and Papa John’s publish their menus and allow ordering online.

2009: The touch-screen wine list at New York’s SD26 restaurant provides exhaustive detail on more than 1,000 high-end bottles. —Bruno Maddox; research by Nina Fedrizzi

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