The Way We Ate

At first glance, vintage menus have noticeably low-sounding prices, but a closer look reveals our changing culinary tastes


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Restaurants in the early to mid 20th century offered food at prices that would astonish American diners today, including french onion soup for 40 cents, hasenpfeffer dinners for $3, and a tenderloin of beef a la wellington for $9.95.

Photographs by joe vaughn

Tastes change figuratively speaking in almost everything, from fashion to décor, but tastes change quite literally with cuisine.

To prove that point, we examined a stash of vintage menus from Detroit restaurants, ranging from 1941 to 1980. They were found at an estate sale at a home whose contents suggested the owners liked to dine and travel.

Some of the restaurants — all vanished now — include Little Harry’s, The Golden Lion, Carl’s Chop House, Topinka’s, The Brass Rail, Joey’s Stables, and Jim’s Garage. Two — the London Chop House and Joe Muer’s — closed but have been reincarnated.

Most menus are from the ’60s or ’70s. What they reveal isn’t just a nostalgic trip down a culinary memory lane. They also manifest a dramatic shift in our dining experience, namely that our palates since then have broadened and grown more sophisticated.

At first glance the most striking thing about these menus are the prices. 

In 1956 at Hudson’s Riverview Room, a shrimp cocktail was just 45 cents. A cup of coffee set you back a dime.

At Topinka’s on The Boulevard across from the Fisher Theatre, an undated menu offered Broiled Florida Red Snapper — including smorgasbord, soup, potatoes, bread, and tea or coffee — for $4.35.

At the old Brass Rail on West Adams Avenue, you could unwind during the Cocktail Hour, when drinks were reduced to 50 cents. While the menu isn’t dated, the graphics suggest the ’60s.

And at The French Village restaurant in the long-gone Majestic Building downtown, Fried Frog Legs with French fries and coleslaw commanded a princely sum of 49 cents on the menu from Sept. 5, 1941. 

The prices are astonishing, but what’s even more amazing are the menu items themselves.

Since then, our palates have grown much more sophisticated.

American cuisine ruled, with surf or turf common. Vegetarians were out of luck, though they could cobble a meal together with a salad and vegetable sides. And have you ever seen apricot pie on any menu?

At a time when we have an embarrassment of riches in ethnic cuisine, back in the day it was a challenge to find authentic ethnic fare. There was Chinese and Italian, but little else. At downtown’s Top of the Flame, which had a dazzling view from atop the old Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. Building (now One Woodward Avenue), the menu boasted the spot was “inspired by exotic Thailand.” 

However, there were no Thai dishes on the menu, not even a staple like pad Thai. There were three “Oriental Specialties,” but they were Chinese, including Sweet and Sour Pork. Most of the menu consisted of American favorites such as pork chops and roast ribs of beef.

The Little Café on Gratiot Avenue specialized in German food, such as sauerbraten and hasenpfeffer, but its menu featured many American dishes, too.


The French Village Restaurant offered Fried frog legs with french fries and coleslaw for 49 cents.
 

In his 84 years, native Detroiter and restaurateur Jim Lark has witnessed the sea change in our dining habits. He and his wife, Mary, are the proprietors of The Lark in West Bloomfield Township, now in its 35th year. The French restaurant twice has been honored as Hour Detroit’s Restaurant of the Year. After a long and successful run, the Larks will retire on Dec. 23 and sell the restaurant.

Lark recalls when the dining scene here had precious little ethnic cuisine. 

“Mary and I discovered dim sum in the Orient and we liked that approach to Chinese dining,” he says. “But there was none in the Detroit area.

“We finally found a Chinese restaurant doing dim sum in Windsor. Now, I’m within a short distance of finding restaurants that do dim sum.”

Lark also has noticed a radical change in wine lists through the years. His restaurant offers roughly 100 wines on the back of its menu, with a staggering 1,000 more in a separate book.

“I can remember a time when the only decent wine list was the London Chop House’s,” he says. 

Indeed, the vintage menu from the London Chop House contains a wine list that made some other restaurants’ offerings look chintzy. Others had what today would be considered low-rent pours. The list at the Motor Bar in the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel, for example, included such dubious wines as Paul Masson Pink and Lancer’s.

Lark believes diners became more knowledgeable about wine in the ’80s.

“If a wine list was part of the reason for a restaurant’s success, other restaurants would notice and then it grew,” he says.

But why did our tastes become more adventurous? 

Lark believes he knows, at least in part.

“I think some of these trends are the result of the increase in income of the population,” he says. “People became more willing to consider the finer aspects of dining.” And, he adds, that boost in income allowed Americans to travel, exposing them to different cuisines.

Another trend that has emerged in the last decade is the locally grown food movement. People today care where the food they consume originates, but decades ago the idea of locally grown food didn’t register in diners’ minds. 

Years ago, the dining ambience wasn’t complete without a pianist playing standards. Piano bars are few and far between these days.

“I used to like going to Little Harry’s with Mary so I could sing at the piano bar,” Lark recalls.

But it was a sad coda for Little Harry’s. That lovely 19th-century building on East Jefferson Avenue was demolished in 1991, taking with it a quaint era in Detroit dining.

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