I recently participated in a panel presentation about old Seattle restaurant menus. It was a journey through several histories at once:
•There was the history of printing — Over the years, menus went from letterpress-era, "hot type," past the days of photo-typesetting and offset printing, to today's desktop publishing.
With laser-printed menus, upscale joints can list and price every short-term offering. That cryptic phrase "market price" no longer needs to be used (though it still is).
•There was the history of graphic design — The Olympic Hotel Georgian Room's menu cover depicted an Elizabethan, fancy-dress ball, painted in subdued colors.
Crawford's Sea Grill (the later Ivar's Captain's Table on Elliott Avenue) depicted a green cartoon fish, smiling at the prospect of being eaten by nice people like you.
Pancho's, a former Belltown Mexican restaurant, featured a gross caricature of a big-eyed, barefoot peasant.
In a more dignified Latin American homage, the original El Gaucho on Olive Way had a black-and-green menu cover, with a flaming shish kebab held by a hand clad in an Argentine cowboy glove.
•There was the history of copy writing — The aforementioned Georgian Room promised "grain-fed Eastern beef than which there is no better."
Belltown's still-mourned Dog House listed its own steaks with the disclaimer "tenderness not guaranteed."
The International District's still-open Tai Tung warned, "This restaurant is not responsible for lost articles or for the accidental spilling of dishes by waiters on clothing."
Elks Lodge No. 92, at the time on Third Avenue and Madison Street, offered a little doggerel poetry: "Because of our chef's care and fine resolution, we kindly request: Please do not ask for substitutions."
•There was the history of food itself — The fads that came and went, and in some cases came and went
again, such as the now-obscure ethnic items such as the "roll mop" (a herring wrapped around a pickle), or the perennials, such as steaks, sandwiches and soups. (One menu charged more for Campbell's soups than for soups made in-house!)
•There was the history of the dining experience — At one time, going out to eat was a major event. Couples would hire babysitters, dress in their best togs and go out for a full experience. A complete meal from appetizer to dessert; plus the decor, the wait service, the seating, and the "plate presentation.
A frequent part of this experience was a large menu, designed and printed with care, often mounted inside a thick, embossed cover.
•There was the history of restaurant architecture — Many of you know about the unjustly demolished Twin Teepees on Aurora Avenue North. That was just one of several "vernacular" roadhouse buildings along Highway 99 and Lake City/Bothell Way.
There was also the Igloo (two white hemispheres), the Jolly Roger (a pirate fortress) and the infamous Coon Chicken Inn (the giant head of a stereotyped black man across the building's front, with
the front doors in his gap-toothed mouth).
•And particularly, there was the history of a city — There was the young city striving for greatness, as seen in the Thanksgiving 1913 menu from the long-demolished Butler Hotel. It's an exquisite, three-color document, created for use on one night only.
There was the growing city, inventing new things while honoring its heritage. The Legend Room, in The Bon Marché at Northgate (the first true shopping mall), featured line-art renditions of native totems on a menu that emphasized such "feminine" items as cream of tomato-watercress soup.
There was the proud city, supporting its own entrepreneurs: Ivar Haglund, Victor Rosellini, Peter Canlis.
There was the trendy city, embracing the 1970s’ fern-bar fad at the Great American Food and Beverage Co.; yet also welcoming the simultaneous "foodie" revolution in gourmet fare at Brasserie Pittsbourg.
There was the nostalgic city that hated to see favorite places go. The Dog House's final menu in 1994 was photocopied, because longtime customers had walked away with all the printed menus.
And, finally, there is the adventurous city, eager to try the newest "flavor of the month." Capitol Hill's new Terra Plata features a simple, laser-printed menu listing the ingredients in every item (but not how they're prepared) — from fois gras torchon to moulard duck breast.
What does it all prove?
That the phrase "you are what you eat" applies to communities as well as individuals.
(Many of the above insights are based on the remarks of my co-panelists: bookseller Taylor Bowie and Seattle Weekly restaurant reviewer Hanna Raskin. The panel was part of the “History Café” series, sponsored by KCTS, MOHAI, HistoryLink.organd the Seattle Public Library.)
CLARK HUMPHREY is the author of “Walking Seattle” and “Vanishing Seattle.” He also writes a blog at miscmedia.com.