A Brief History of Restaurant Menus
In the year 879 BCE, the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II threw a party of historic proportions. He had just built himself a palace in the newly-revitalized city of what is now Nimrud, and he decided to celebrate with thousands of his closest friends. His massive banquet included guests from across the region, and it lasted 10 days.
During that time, guests were supplied with booze and delicacies like sheep, oxen, fruit, cheese, and honey. King Ashurnasirpal II decided to commemorate the event by having a description of it engraved into a large stone tablet called a stele.
According to his account, 69,574 people attended—though that may have been an oddly specific exaggeration. The inscription also lists the food items served at the celebration, which technically makes the Banquet Stele one of the world’s oldest surviving menus. Fortunately for today’s delicate-armed diners, menus have come a long way from the 4-ton stone slabs of Ancient Mesopotamia—the Cheesecake Factory excluded.
The Evolution of the Menu
The first people to use menus in something more like the modern sense may have been the Chinese. During the Song Dynasty around 1100 CE, the first businesses resembling modern restaurants appeared in urban centers like Kaifeng and Hangzhou. Unlike inns, where every guest was fed whatever meal was being prepared that day, these restaurants provided patrons with a list of items to choose from.
The options were plentiful. An account of a writer living in Hangzhou at the time lists approximately 600 dishes sold at taverns, teahouses, noodle shops, and fine-dining restaurants around the city. Other innovations of the Song dining scene include table service, singing waiters, and possibly even an early rating system. Instead of stars, restaurateurs hung up to five flags outside their building to indicate the quality of what was inside. Businesses selling limited dishes had one flag, while sit-down spots with a menu had at least two.
Many people associate fine dining with French cuisine, but restaurants haven’t always been part of the county’s culture. For most of the 18th century, fancy meals were confined to the private homes of the French upper class. The only way to dine out was by going to an inn or tavern where guests sat at communal tables and ate the same meal as everyone else. The first true restaurants didn’t start appearing in France until the late 1700s. Historian Rebecca Spang points out how novel the idea still was by 1769, when the play Arlequin Restaurateur aux Porcherons included a scene dramatizing the reading of a menu.
We also have France to thank for the word menu. Derived from the Latin word minutus, menu was first used to describe something small and detailed. Originally, any brief list of information was considered a menu. It wasn’t until the rise of restaurants in early-19th-century France that the word took on a new meaning. Today, a menu is any written list of dishes.)
Around the 1830s, Delmonico’s became New York City’s first establishment to give diners the option to order individual items off a menu. One person who visited in 1831 noted his difficulties with all the French terms—starting off his meal with a cornichon. Thinking that it was a small horn of beverage, he was quite shocked when pickles arrived. He also lists a large selection of meats, which was a common theme in American restaurant menus from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Instead of dividing dishes into appetizers, entrees, and desserts, an 1859 breakfast menu from New York’s Metropolitan Hotel had sections for various meat preparations. Diners could order their animal protein cold, broiled, fried, or stewed. The menu of the famous Parker House in Boston from a year earlier had a whole category just for game meat, like partridge, prairie grouse, and frog. Other noteworthy menu items from this period include hamburger eel in jelly, dominos of tongue, and Squirrels’ Surprise.
Tricks of the Menu Trade
Menus have changed drastically in the past century or so, and not all of those changes have been obvious. Many modern menus use psychological tricks meant to influence customers' behavior without their knowledge.
If you ever notice the dollar sign missing from menu prices, that’s likely an intentional choice meant to make spending money easier to stomach. According to one Cornell study, leaving out the dollar sign can increase your average spending by 8.15 percent.
Even a menu’s layout can mess with your brain. By listing an extravagantly-priced item near the top of the page, restaurants can make the rest of their offerings seem affordable in comparison.
Menus for Kids And Women
Today, many restaurants provide special menus to their young clientele, but that wasn’t always the case. Kids were rarely welcomed in restaurants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and when they did get to eat out, they were expected to order off the same menu as their parents.
That started to change with the National Prohibition Act of 1920. With the loss of alcohol sales, U.S. restaurants were desperate for new sources of revenue. This led to some establishments designing menus that catered to youth diners—an untapped market at the time.
The Waldorf-Astoria was a leader in offering a children’s menu in 1921. It included such kid-friendly items as broiled lamb chops, flaked chicken over boiled rice, and prune whip. At the time, plain foods were believed to be good for a child’s development. It would be another few decades before the health-focused kids menu was replaced by grilled cheese and dinosaur chicken nuggets.
Children aren’t the only group who have had special menus made for them. For much of the last century, women’s menus were used by certain fine-dining restaurants. These menus listed the same items as the regular menu, but their prices were omitted. That way, the male patron’s female date would feel free to order whatever dish she wanted without worrying about the bill, which the man was assumed to be footing.
As you can imagine, this led to some awkward situations. In 1980, Kathleen Bick took her male business partner Larry Becker out to dinner in Los Angeles and received a menu that hid the foods’ cost. Bick was offended by the unequal treatment, and she and Becker decided to sue the restaurant for discrimination. They hired Gloria Allred—one of the era’s most prominent feminist lawyers—to represent them. The lawsuit was eventually dropped, though the eatery did agree to put an end to the unequal practice.
Writing in the Edmonton Journal in 1982, Shirley Hunter discussed bits of restaurant pretension she wanted to see disappear, including price-less menus. As Hunter wrote, “when I requested a menu with prices the water couldn’t have registered more shock if I had asked him to strip to his bare buff in the middle of the dining room.”
Some restaurants still use so-called “blind” menus today, but who gets them is supposed to depend on which diner booked the reservation—not the diners’ gender.
The Rise of the Secret Menu
Many restaurants have a secret menu in addition to the items they advertise to customers. At Chipotle, you can ask for a Quesarito, which is a burrito wrapped in a cheese quesadilla. Ordering a “Land, Sea, and Air Burger” at McDonald’s will get you a sandwich with a beef patty, a chicken patty, and a fish filet.
Starbucks doesn’t have an official secret menu, but baristas will make pretty much anything you want as long as they have the ingredients. That’s how such drinks as the Ghostbusters Frappuccino—a Grande Vanilla Bean Frappe with raspberry syrup and strawberry puree—came to be.
From reinforcing outdated gender norms to tricking you into spending money, menus aren’t always customer friendly. But they did help democratize dining when they were introduced centuries ago. So if you ever spend 30 minutes choosing your lunch order, be grateful that you have a choice at all—and be happy that it’s not between prune whip and Squirrels’ Surprise.
This story has been adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.