One rule that restaurants often have a hard time sticking to is "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." It’s a part of the DNA of most chefs and restaurateurs to be constantly exploring, dreaming up new ideas, inventing, creating, and upgrading. That constant quest for inspiration is, in many ways, what keeps the job exciting, and at no time in history has there been so much pressure on chefs to keep their menus constantly evolving, sometimes completely changing from one day to the next depending on what’s in season. But at the other end of the spectrum are the restaurants with menus that never change.
No, we’re not talking about that local diner that’s been serving the same exact gyro for the past 30 years (while that certainly has its merits). We’re talking about restaurants that serve food that’s become timeless, a menu that’s so engrained into the very fiber of the building that even a minor change would be considered blasphemy, and very well might result in picket lines.
So what is it that makes a menu timeless, exactly, as opposed to just outdated? The quality of the food needs to be incredibly high, obviously, but these restaurants also need to be considered institutions. When you’ve reached a certain level of renown, and people come from miles away just to eat your family-style fried chicken dinner, you don’t go adding sesame-crusted tuna to your menu because nobody will order it, and if they came there for anything other than the fried chicken then they’re out of their mind. It’s that level of devotion to the dishes that makes a menu timeless.
These menus aren’t just tried-and-true, they’re glimpses into our culinary heritage. There used to be hundreds of restaurants just like downtown Los Angeles’ Original Pantry Café, but now you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that still serves basically the same classic menu that it did in 1924, complete with a hamburger steak and a hot beef sandwich. If the head chef there wanted to do some culinary exploration, he’d go work somewhere else.
Our list of timeless menus runs the gamut from cheap eats (New Haven’s Louis' Lunch) to perhaps the last restaurant in the country still serving nearly unpronounceable Gilded Age fare (New Orleans’ Antoine’s). Read on for a glimpse at how we used to eat, and where you can still eat those same dishes today.
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers.