rumination 21: à la carte…

– I had been behind on organizing my menu collection.  A pile of them had formed from my last few trips, unfiled. So this week, I pulled out all of my binders, bulging with restaurant cards, menus, and other momentos that I had collected over the years. I also pulled out a tub of oversized […]


I had been behind on organizing my menu collection.  A pile of them had formed from my last few trips, unfiled.

So this week, I pulled out all of my binders, bulging with restaurant cards, menus, and other momentos that I had collected over the years. I also pulled out a tub of oversized menus, ones too large or too thick to bind.

As I sat on the floor of my living room, assigning menus to the stacks spread out around me (everything organized geographically), I suddenly realized, for the first time, that this collection told a story. Until now, it had been (or, had become) nothing more than a mindless task, a ritual; binders on a shelf.  But, with it all laid out before me, it struck me: this was a map of my life, a record of when, where, and what I’ve eaten over the past decade.

I crowded everything together, knowing that only a fraction of it would fit in frame, mounted a ladder, and snapped a shot of the spread. You see it above.

When my friend Ginsberg saw the photo, he asked which menu was my favorite. His question was a sensible one, even an obvious one, faced with the insanity of my obsession. But I hadn’t really thought about it before.  I had come to see each menu as an extension of my experience at that restaurant, looking fondly on even the ugliest or most ordinary ones if liked the meal, and dismissing even the most impressive ones if not.

Ginsberg’s question prompted me to go back and look at each menu anew, with a different eye.  After sifting through over a thousand menus, I’m not sure I can answer my friend’s question any better than before. But, the exercise didn’t leave me empty handed.

I pulled out some of the most interesting and unique menus from my collection to share with you.

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TWA First Class menu.

I’ve been collecting restaurant cards and menus for far longer than I’ve been blogging. In fact, many of the mementos in my collection come from restaurants that no longer exist, and are signed by chefs who are no longer alive.

The oldest restaurant card in my collection dates back to 1998.  It’s from Pete Miller’s, a steakhouse in Evanston, Illinois, where I was a college student at the time. The oldest menu in my collection isn’t from a restaurant. It’s from first class on an international flight to Amsterdam that I took as a child in 1989 (half of the menu is in Dutch; the main course options were dry-aged Chateaubriand and rack of lamb).  My mother worked for the now-defunct giant, Trans World Airlines (more commonly known as TWA), accruing enough seniority to afford my family free travel for years. Filled with wanderlust, my parents took me everywhere – Athens, Nassau, Cairo, Rome, Lisbon, Paris, London, Berlin, and many more destinations around the globe – all before I reached the age of majority. Flying stand-by, we went wherever the flights were empty. So, those overseas trips – always in first class (at a time when first class was truly first class – caviar before take-off, lobster on bone china, a cheese cart to rival Picholine’s, and a dessert cart to rival le Bec Fin’s) – were a common childhood luxury, sorely missed when my benefits expired on my twenty-second birthday.*

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Oversized and booklet menus.

Designing menus is an artform.  It’s a psychological game. You have to know your audience, and pitch at their level. (For two excellent articles on this subject, both published in December of 2009, read Sarah Kershaw’s article, “Restaurants Use Menu Psychology To Entice Diners” published in the New York Times, and William Poundstone’s article, “Menu Mind Games,” published in The New Yorker.)

As such, menus tell you a lot about a restaurant and its chef, and sometimes, about the people eating in the dining room. Like a playbill, the menu arrives before the show, a preview of what is to come. So, at their best, menus are not just a list of choices. At their best, they project the personality in the kitchen and the experience you’re intended to have.

Although I’ve noticed menus shrinking in physical size over the years, size still matters, especially in the Old World, where menus presented at the top tables are often still so absurdly large that one wonders if they aren’t extensions of the chefs’ egos. If not, they certainly suggest luxury, fawning with square footage and ridiculously large print, perhaps pitched for the aging eyes of the hoary elite, who populate such places. There’s a rather comical moment at the beginning of these meals when the entire table sits in silence, each member murmuring to themselves behind their oversized menus.  It’s all a bit ridiculous if you ask me.

But, they are beautiful, these floppy folios.  They’re generous.  They’re festive.  And, they’re a dying breed.

Above, you see two of my favorite examples. On the left is the colorful menu from La Bourgogne, a classic, French restaurant in the Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires, where I ate in Spring of 2005. On the right, is the flashy carte from Paul Bocuse’s Michelin three-starred l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges in France. This menu is from my first visit to that restaurant, Christmas day of 2008. For size comparison, I’ve included a booklet menu from Restaurant 99, in Warsaw, Poland, where I ate in October of 2005.

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Quique Dacosta menu.

Banning photography aside, I’m saddened to hear that chefs are forbidding note-taking in their restaurants (I know of three). In my opinion, that’s autocratic idiocy.

I get it: nobody likes a diner who’s trying too hard.

But, is it so wrong to want to record and remember your meal, especially when no menu is offered or given?  Or, if the menu is in a different language?

So, I was particularly pleased when we were presented with notebooks, complete with pencil and pad, along with the menus at Quique Dacosta in Dénia, Spain. (The menus were only printed in Spanish, French, and German, an indication that English-speakers haven’t really discovered this restaurant.)  After eating three meals, back-to-back-to-back at Quique Dacosta in the summer of 2011, I came to know Dacosta as a very thoughtful and philosophical chef. And he offered the notebooks you see above to encourage us to engage with his cooking, to journal our experience, and to create a record more precious than any menu could offer.

Sometimes, food isn’t “just food.”  Sometimes, food is story.  Sometimes, food is poetry.  And why shouldn’t we write about it?

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Schaenstein's menu.

Housed in a old castle, now a luxury hotel, Andreas Caminada’s Michelin three-starred Schloss Schauenstein in Fürstenau, Switzerland, recreates the magical world of childhood in a stack of cards.

When we arrived here, we were taken upstairs, into a grand salon for cocktails and canapés. Here, before our meal began, each of us was given a card.  On one side was a cartoon of a figure or animal (mine had a bearded chef holding a sauté pan, aflame; my friend’s card depicted a ghost, carrying a key).  On the other side was a quirky factoid about the picture (for example, mine said that, in certain cultures, a chef’s “whisker,” thrown into the food is considered a “culinary blessing”).

At table, each of us had a little stand for our card. With each course, a new card arrived on our stand, with the description of the dish.  If wine was ordered, we’d get a card for that too.

At the end of the meal, all of the cards were cleared away and we were given one last one. This one had a picture of a crab on it.  On the back side was this message:

“If, instead of Francs, Dollars, or Euros, you prefer to settle your bill in Crustaceans, you are welcome to do so. The curent exchange rate is: 10 US Dollars = 3 prawns and 8 krill, or 0.5 reef lobsters, and 17 fiddler crabs, or 1825.3 opossum shrimps (fresh).”

Of course, I paid with plastic. But the option of paying with lobsters and crabs, the cartoon mermaids and ghosts and knights on horses, and the way our meal unfolded in a series of postcards from the kitchen took us over the river and through the woods, into the looking glass, and beyond the wardrobe. All of it transformed this castle into a playhouse, where legend and lore, reason and rules, were the improbable whisperings of a child’s mind.

When we left, gift bags awaited us at the host stand. Each had a different card attached – our cards. I found mine – the bearded chef. Inside was a little booklet with all of my dinner cards slotted into the pages, alongside beautiful pictures of the food and hotel, a wonderful way to remember my magical escape that night in June of 2011.  You see the entire collection above.

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Sant Pau menu

Sometimes, an overwhelming variety of food is set down: a carousel of canapés, a smattering of sweets.  Even though the server usually rattles it all off, explaining each part in detail (at a speed too fast for the mind to process), I’m usually left guessing my way through it all rather than enjoying it. I wish there were a key, like the ones you find in boxes of chocolate, with which to decode the lot.

At Sant Pau, a Michelin three-starred restaurant on the Costa Brava in Spain, Carme Ruscalleda gives you a key. Hers are colorful, hand-rendered diagrams, with captions.

Rarely are cheese courses described in detail on menus (why is that?). But at Sant Pau, we were given a little map to our cheese board, with all of the accompaniments accounted. There were also fold-out guides for our canapés – for that month of July, 2011, all of them were inspired by the color yellow – and for the petits fours as well.

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Eleven Madison Park menu

Eleven Madison Park in New York City has changed menu formats many times over the six years that Daniel Humm has been chef there.  My very first menu from that restaurant was not unlike most: a list of dishes, grouped by courses (2007).  But, over the years, the restaurant has whittled its menu down to its current, minimalist state.  It’s now a grid with only the main ingredient of each course listed. It’s known among the bloggerati as the “tick-tac-toe” board.

But, for a very brief period, in 2010, the restaurant’s tasting menu was presented, at the end of the meal, as an accordion, folded into a small tin of caviar (in which one of the courses had been served).  I can’t say the menu’s dimensions make it easy to keep – it certainly can’t be bound with the others. But, it remains one of the most unique menus in my collection.

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Menus usually tell you what’s in each dish (more or less).  And, generally, they tell you the order in which the dishes will arrive, which, in turn, gives you an idea of how the dishes compare with each other in size (e.g. first courses will be smaller, main courses will be larger).

But, what if, instead of leaving you to guess and assume, the menu gave you a visual guide to the flavor and size of each dish?

That’s what Grant Achatz did at alinea.  On his menu, each course is assigned a bubble.  The size of the bubble directly corresponds to the amount of food there is for each course. And, the bubble’s position tells you how flavorful the dish is – the further to the right, the more intense the flavor.

Above, you’ll see the menus from my first two dinners at alinea. The one on the left is from July of 2005. The one on the right is from February of 2006.

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L2O and The Fat Duck

I’ve seen an awful lot of menus printed on butcher paper recently, as if to help sop up the grease, left un-wiped, on tables at gastropubs here and there.  It’s a style; it’s an aesthetic.  A place for everything, and everything in its place.

But restaurants like L.2O in Chicago (where I ate in July of 2008) and The Fat Duck in Bray, England (where I ate in December of 2008), argue for elegance.  The menus I have from both of these restaurants are tucked in bright-white envelopes sealed with wax.  They are beautiful.

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When everyone seems to be stripping their menus down to abstraction, listing only the primary ingredients, or only the main ingredient (see Eleven Madison Park above), Dave Racicot expands in detail.

The 16-course tasting menu from his restaurant notion (currently, closed and relocating), where I ate in May of 2011, was presented as a prep list, with every ingredient in each dish listed.  For the interested, it’s a ready reference.  For the curious, you need not ask.

I loved that.

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Vetri Ristorante menus.

Chefs are creative.  Chefs are imaginative.  So, why limit their artistry to the plate?

My two menus from Vetri Ristorante, where I ate twice in the summer of 2008, are painted and signed by Marc Vetri, chef and proprietor.  His is sort of a splatter style, striped with the mark of fork tines.  The dishes are written by hand.  Together, it’s a simple and lovely expression of the chef’s sentiment, personal and unique.

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elBulli menus.

Sometimes, menus are bragging rights, cherished not for their looks, but for the rarity of the experiences they represent.

For example, you’ll find some amazing menus framed in the bathroom at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago (go see them now, before the restaurant closes this August).  I’ve also seen some great menus framed in the bathroom of Manresa in Los Gatos, California (I haven’t been since they remodeled, so I’m not sure if they’re still there).

I don’t collect menus to show them off (until now, I’ve never shown my collection to anyone).  So, I have never framed any of them. But, if I ever do, the first two I’ll frame are my menus from elBulli, where I ate twice in 2011, just months before it closed.  In the restaurant’s last season, all of the menus for the 8,000-plus guests who would pass through its doors were numbered.

Above, you’ll see that, for the last year of elBulli’s service, I was diner number 1,038 (left) and 6,365 (right).

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Menus are not inexpensive to print or make. And some of them, as you see above, cannot be reproduced. So, to all of the restaurants who have let me keep a copy for my collection, thank you.

* My dumb luck: a month later, TWA declared bankruptcy and was merged into American Airlines.

Categories michelin restaurant rumination travel

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7 replies on “rumination 21: à la carte…”

Not many people have access to the breadth of menus as you do, so thanks for sharing. Any chance these will find their way to your Flickr stream or a different online home?

…and FWIW, I was at Manresa in November after the renovation, and the menus were still hanging in the restroom.

Love the post. I have just started my journey of documenting my visits to memorable dining experiences. Hope to have a collection as impressive as yours one day!

Have always been given menus after meals (and sometimes (horrors!) failed to bring them home) but never paid any attention to them until reading this post. Great writeup!

did those first class free of charge travelers have something to do with TWA’s bankruptcy? we will never know, but dont forget the olives in the sallad…..
i trully enjoy your work, photo and letters.
thank you