Los Angeles à la Carte

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IMAGE: Ollie Hammond’s, 3683 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 1950. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

Restaurant menus seem like the most ephemeral of ephemera: updated seasonally or even daily; printed in-house on cheap card stock or even scrawled on chalkboards. But, with menus as with fruit stickers, airsickness bags, and pizza boxes, everything humanity sees fit to print will eventually attract a collector or two. Many of these menu collections are now archived in public institutions, where they have proven themselves to be a valuable resource for historians, designers, economists, chefs, and even ecologists.

The New York Public Library’s collection of roughly 45,000 menus leads the pack, and is currently being transcribed and geo-tagged by volunteers from all over the world. The Los Angeles Public Library’s collection is smaller, but, as it turns out, no less fascinating. USC professor Josh Kun has spent the past couple of years sifting through it with his students, and the resulting exhibition, “To Live and Dine in L.A.,”  launches today.

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IMAGE: Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Banquet Menu, 1895. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

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IMAGE: Scrivner’s (various locations), 1950s. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

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IMAGE: Forbidden Palace, 451 Gin Ling Way, Los Angeles, 1940s; Kowloon, 6124 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 1959. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

In the accompanying book, Kun tells the city’s history through its menus, from its geographic growth to the arrival of different immigrant groups, and from the rise of the automobile to the origins of the farm-to-table movement.

I interviewed Kun and wrote about the project for the New Yorker, and our conversation includes his introduction to the weird subculture of menu collector swap meets as well as his “white whale” menu—the one that got away.

It was from the Los Angeles Women’s Saloon and Parlor, in East Hollywood, which opened in 1974 and was, Kun writes in the book, “the first, and last, feminist restaurant in the city.” To quote myself:

A 1976 Times description of the restaurant offers tantalizing references to omelettes, crab quiche, and vegetarian meatloaf, as well as to an absence of diet drinks (to promote size-acceptance) and grapes and lettuce (to support California farmworkers). But Kun’s searches failed to turn up a surviving menu.

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IMAGE: “Mary Yakutis prepares steamed vegetables at the Los Angeles Women’s Saloon and Parlor,” New York Times photo.

Kun did, however, inadvertently uncover some family history during the research process, while trying to track down a menu from the Budapest Hungarian Restaurant on Fairfax. His grandfather, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Nazi-occupied Hungary, had, for a short time, part-owned the restaurant.

“One of my graduate students tracked down the guy who had bought the restaurant and he kept the one menu,” Kun explained. “I knew my grandfather was a waiter, a busboy—he always worked in restaurants—but I never knew he owned one!”

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IMAGE: Budapest Hungarian Restaurant, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, 1960s. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

Despite spending more than a year tracing aesthetic, socio-cultural, geographic, and culinary patterns through the city’s menus, when I asked Kun to describe the distinctive features of an Angeleno menu, his conclusion that there was no such thing—that the city’s menus mirror the heterogeneity of the dozens of separate cities, towns, and communities that together make up Greater Los Angeles.

That said, he mentioned a collector had told him that “the only thing that makes an LA menu an LA menu is that they’re typically really big”—both in terms of dimensions and the sheer quantity of dishes listed. The city and its dining choices are, it seems, united by sprawl.

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IMAGE: The Broadway, Broadway and Fourth Streets, Los Angeles. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

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IMAGE: Al Levy’s Grill, 617 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, 1930s. From To Live and Dine in L.A.: A Century of Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library by Josh Kun, published by Angel City Press.

There’s much more in my New Yorker article, including Kun’s thoughtful analysis of the archive’s gaps: check it out here.

Kun’s book, To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City, is utterly gorgeous: it contains full-colour reproductions of hundreds of menus, a handful of fascinating menu “re-mixes” by celebrity chefs Nancy Silverton, Micah Wexler, Susan Feniger, and others, as well as an essay on Los Angeles menu design by LACMA’s Staci Steinberger, another by celebrated Angeleno food critic Jonathan Gold, and, of course, Kun’s own contribution. And the exhibition and associated program kick off today: visit the Los Angeles Public Library’s website to find out more.

Thanks to Geoff Manaugh for the tip. As a reminder, my writing can regularly be found on the New Yorker website these days: recent stories include an investigation into the mysterious origins of Swiss cheese holes, a visit to the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre in Reading, and a review of the smell of Qadaffi’s death.

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