Restaurant menu

The sexy and sinister lost art of the restaurant menu


Menus are boring these days, like we’ve run through all the possibilities and decided we don’t want anything; or, rather, we call it nothing. It’s always craving for something different.

The menus are printed to look like typed memos: missives from one ministry to another or spy notes. Pound signs are a rarity despite Brexit, which could boost them. Bread – 4.0 (usually butter included) is typical. It’s joyless and it’s getting worse. The QR code, which you have to point your smartphone at to download a menu, is common. What if you don’t have a smartphone? Are you already dead and don’t need food?

I’ve been reviewing restaurants for a decade, and the only menu I remember is that of Maxim’s in Paris, because of its blood-red lettering dripping down the menu in exquisite, now-old-fashioned style.

Menu Design in Europe (A Visual and Culinary History of Graphic Styles and Design 1800-2000), a new book by Taschen, reminds us that most menus were interesting. Taschen doesn’t really make books, it makes archives. This one tells us that the menus have been showy and insane. They were as fantastic and huge as they are now small and brooding. History is not, for me, in great men. I have met too many. The menu is much more evocative.

Taschen says they are now collectibles, which reminded me of a second menu, from Pharmacy 2, the Damien Hirst restaurant opened with Mark Hix in Lambeth in 2016. It featured a shark, and it wrote “Damien “on it with kisses for me, but I lost it. I don’t think menus really matter. When you sit down to order, you have already committed. They are vanity. Of the two restaurants I remember having menus, Maxim’s was empty, and Pharmacie 2 closed.

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