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.
No discussion of the history of American dining is complete without a major acknowledgement of the role that Childs played in developing the restaurant as we know it. When the first Childs opened in 1889 in downtown New York, restaurants were either high-end affairs like Delmonico’s, or more everyman lunch counters and oyster houses. Childs, with its emphasis on low-price, quality food, intelligent design, hygiene, good service, and expansion, set the stage for modern inexpensive dining.
Childs was one of the first national dining chains, and by the time it reached its peak in the 1930s there were about 125 locations in dozens of markets throughout the country.
This menu from the New York Public Library's online archive dates from 1900, just two years after aggressive expansion plans were put into place, and is a great snapshot of what businessmen ate for breakfast and on their lunch breaks at the turn of the century. It’s a very simple, elegantly arranged menu, with many dishes that wouldn’t be out of place on a menu today. A few interesting items jump out, though: at first we weren’t sure what "beef tea" was, but it turns out that it was a very popular drink back then and is just beef broth. The pancakes certainly sound good as well (they were famously cooked to order in the front windows), as do the soups, stews, and hash. We’re intrigued by the "cornstarch," however; that doesn’t sound too appetizing on its own, and the minced tongue sandwich most likely wouldn’t go over so well today. There are still a couple of (mostly Chinese) restaurants that serve oyster omelettes, but you probably won’t be seeing milk toast, a majorly vintage dish in which toast is dunked into hot, salted, thickened milk, on menus anymore.
Childs restaurants are long gone nowadays, and in most cases the buildings that housed them were torn down long ago as well. Probably the most famous extant Childs building still stands on Coney Island (pictured), and could be getting a much-needed renovation soon.