Library of Congress
Every week, we tap into the deep recesses of the New York Public Library’s vast archive of old menus to take a look at the history of dining out. Click here for more Menus of the Week.
When you first take a look at this 1897 menu, the bill of fare from the Waldorf-Astoria, arguably the finest hotel in New York at the time, the first thing that jumps out is the fact that it’s all in French. Even the little note telling guests that they can prepare a pre-theater menu is in French, and the one above it saying that they don’t accept reservations after 7 p.m.
While this menu might look completely different from ones you’ll see today, it’s not very different from how it was at fine dining establishments throughout the country at this time. Fine dining was French dining; they were essentially synonymous. The menu is divided into soups, salads, seafood, a highlighted section where all the most expensive stuff was listed (things haven’t changed much after all), meats, game, vegetables in various preparations, cheeses, fruits, and lots of desserts.
It takes a real knowledge of both French and cuisine in order to navigate this menu, and that’s exactly what the folks at the Waldorf were going for. Whereas most modern menus actually provide some explanation along with each item (what a novel concept), this just assumes that you already know what a Salade Japonaise is. But even though it might look intimidating, there are plenty of dishes that would be right at home on a menu today. We’ll stick with the clam chowder, grilled chicken, some haricots verts, a nice hunk of Gruyère, and an almond soufflé to top it off. Even though that meal only would have cost $3.60 in 1897’s dollars, when adjusted for inflation that’ll cost nearly $100.
The original Waldorf was located at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, a very swanky neighborhood at the time. It was torn down in the 1920s to make way for the Empire State Building, which occupies that spot today, and the hotel moved up to its current location on Park Avenue. The closest equivalent to the grand dining room today is the a steakhouse that offers a slightly more traditional dining experience.