Vintage Restaurant Menu Design: We’re Still Hungry

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With the rise of iPads greeting diners at the table, menus—at least print menus—are quickly becoming a thing of the past. To commemorate this graphic niche of restaurant menu design, one 392-page TASCHEN book showcases over 800 printed menu designs from 1850 to 1985. The book, which was recently released in an affordable paperback edition, is fit for any graphic designer’s home library.

A la Carte: 100 Years of Menu Design in America is co-authored by Steven Heller, a renowned graphic design book writer and School of Visual Art design faculty (Editor’s Note: and author of The Daily Heller right here on!), culinary historian John Mariani and TASCHEN America executive editor, Jim Heimann.

Menu Design in America

Formerly Fancy

The book outlines how print menus were rare in the 19th century and reserved only for special occasions. With the rise of affordable restaurants in cities America, combined with the rise of diner culture, menus became commonplace culinary listings. Though restaurant menu design wasn’t really center stage compared to poster or editorial design, paper menus designed for keeping while eating out was a marketing tool.

For Heimann, his favorite menus in the book are those from the early 20th century. “Mostly because of the complex elements that went into some of them,” he tells us. “Often urban restaurants had hundreds of items that had to incorporated and still be legible. The graphics are certainly very decorative and hand lettering plays a big part in many of the them. There was also the element of making them special and elaborate with special die-cuts, ribbons, and sometimes pop-ups. Certainly at lot of attention was devoted to the menu.”

"A La Carte: Menu Design in America" features restaurant menu design of past decades.

An impressive example of detailed restaurant menu design can be found in the Early Fine Dining chapter of the book. It shows the illustrious menu for The Royal Blue Line from 1891, showcasing a menu of a luxurious restaurant, with gold embossed type, ornate typography, and a blue lace ribbon binding. In the Holiday Menus chapter, a Thanksgiving menu from 1918 at Hotel Leighton in Los Angeles shows a holiday gobbler alongside an American flag wrapped around the gold font.

"A La Carte: 100 Years of Menu Design in America" features restaurant menu design of past decades.

Restaurant Menu Design: A Themed Affair

The Leaf-Themed Menus chapter showcases a dinner menu from the National Cigar Leaf Tobacco Association, who held a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 1912. Their menu was written entirely in gold embossed all-caps, describing items like “saddle of spring lamb” and “little neck clams.”

"A La Carte: Menu Design in America" features restaurant menu design of past decades.

Among the best in the Novelty Menus chapter, a doll-like fairy graces the Catacombs Caverns menu from Columbus, Ohio, showcasing a two-colored drink menu from whiskies to beer.

"A La Carte: Menu Design in America" features restaurant menu design of past decades.

There’s a whole section devoted to Tiki-themed menus, featuring the drink menu for the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and The Traders restaurant in Chicago from 1957. Tiki-themed restaurants saw their rise in the 1950s and 1960s, using Pacific totems and Hawaiian cocktails as a theme for their setting.

"A La Carte: Menu Design in America" features restaurant menu design of past decades.

A Thing of the Past Now

While the book looks at menus from the past, it also reflects the present changes in today’s menu design. “Because of the ease of changing items and prices, digitally produced menus, often with stock designs, are becoming the norm for most restaurants,” said Heimann. “Call it the ‘neutering or blanding of the dining experience.’ Most eating establishments don’t want to incur additional costs by producing something that is unique and has to be altered.”

Something we don’t see today in restaurant menu design is analogue design, be it letterpress, creative paper works or even something beyond your typical chalkboard. “Along with tablets, menus have become a necessary but not very adventurous part of the culinary world,” he said. “There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, economics and speed have overtaken a once creative and unique category of printed matter. Hence the book.”