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New York Public Library’s “What’s On the Menu?”

When we discovered the New York Public Library’s online digital gallery of 45,000 historical menus, we thought we had died and gone to food nerd heaven. The menus date all the way back to the 1840’s and they have been scanned and transcribed, dish by dish, such that you can search for either a particular restaurant (like “Delmonico’s”) or a specific dish (like “onion soup”), resulting in thousands of menu images, with each item on the menu cross-referenced in a bar to the right of the image.

The dining establishments of yesteryear had menus that were true works of art, with hand-painted designs, graphics, and fonts, evocative of the aesthetics of their respective eras. These menus not only provide a window into America’s culinary past, they conjure a hypothetical social, cultural, and gastronomic experience so purely visceral as to function as a veritable time machine.

The New York Public Library possesses one of the largest collections of restaurant menus in the world. They are housed in the Rare Book Division, or accessible on their “What’s On the Menu” webpage.

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