Classic menus from LA's historic restaurants — like Pacific Dining Car — are the singular focus of To Live and Dine in L.A., a thin but wide volume published recently in conjunction with a corresponding exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library; the book features a collection of vintage menus from the library's archives. Compiled by Josh Kun, the book includes essays and appreciations from chefs like Roy Choi and Nancy Silverton, with additional insight from LA Times critic Jonathan Gold and LA's latest James Beard Award recipient Bricia Lopez.
By juxtaposing these contemporary voices and their ventures with the menus of old, Kun reveals the city's culinary evolution from plentiful generalized "American" fare, to endless variations of specialized cuisines. The book does a masterful job of chronicling the economic and gastronomic development of America's second-largest metropolis.
LA is a babe of a city compared to older towns like New York and Chicago, but there are reasons its restaurant culture has comparable depth. After Mexico ceded a large swath of territory over to the U.S. at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Los Angeles flowered quickly as a food city. This was thanks in part to its abundant produce: the ease of growing food made it easier to fill pantries and tabletops. As Kun explains, by 1903, Japanese farmers had planted their own gobo, while wheat sprouted up in the San Fernando Valley. Sheep, cows, seafood, fruits, chiles, nuts, and corn all flourished in fertile California soil.
About eighty years later, the period when I was growing up in nearby Cypress, that agricultural abundance remained. Strawberry farms lined the dusty roads nearby our home in a bedroom community, and my family would pick up a box for a few bucks and feast on the perfectly ripe berries for days. But Southern California's unstoppable growth now threatens its agricultural heritage: those farms have been replaced by office buildings.
Kun has a personal connection to the world he's chronicling: his Hungarian grandfather worked as a waiter at the historic Little Gypsy in West Hollywood in the 1940s. That potential on the part of an immigrant to establish a new life — a new chapter — through the city's restaurants isn't just a part of Kun's heritage, it's part of mine as well. My grandfather, a Korean immigrant who settled in Southern California after a stint in Brazil, flipped burgers at a nondescript shack somewhere in Long Beach in the 1970's. My grandmother owned a Wienerschnitzel in late 1970's, always eager to provide unlimited chili dogs for church prayer meetings.
Despite my family's history in LA restaurants, I felt a distance from much of the world depicted in To Live and Dine. Sadly, there isn't one old Korean restaurant menu in the book, though Korean-American chef-cum-golden boy Roy Choi gets to write the foreword. Still, not seeing a menu from any one of the classic places in LA's historic Koreatown is unfortunate. When it comes to immigrant opportunity, Los Angeles is unmatched in America. The multi-cultural landscape fueled local cuisine since the city's earliest days, and flourishes today. The city's steady influx of new arrivals, from elsewhere in America and from overseas — many of whom have found it easier to buy a plate at the local dive than prepare a meal at home — are what give a city a bustling dining scene. LA has the best Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, and Mexican cuisine in America, not to mention the over one hundred other nationalities represented in its staggeringly diverse lineup of restaurants.
Like the dinosaur fossil record, the menus in the LA Public Library's collection don't tell the complete story of how the days of chop suey grew into the modern xiao long bao era
After establishing LA's earliest restaurant history, Kun dedicates a good portion of To Live and Dine's written section to early Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and African-American restaurants. A few have survived, and their names are familiar: I've feasted on sizzling fajita platters at El Cholo and picked off slippery shrimp at Yang Chow in Chinatown. I appreciate the glimpse into to LA's rise as a hub of international cuisines, but simple inclusion does not capture why and how the city evolved as it did.
Like the dinosaur fossil record, the menus in the LA Public Library's collection don't tell the complete story of how the days of chop suey grew into the modern xiao long bao era. It's striking both how few of those "old-school" immigrant restaurants survived, and how thoroughly they've been supplanted by less Americanized, more culturally specific versions of their cuisines. Especially in their respective enclaves like Koreatown, San Gabriel Valley, and East Los Angeles, immigrant restaurateurs are now much more willing (or maybe much more able) to present their current national flavors than the toiling cooks of yore who adapted their food to American ingredients, flavor profiles, and palates.
Kun's collection finds firmer footing in its survey of the storied Hollywood restaurant culture. The menus at these restaurants — places like Chasen's, Musso & Frank's, Ambassador Hotels — are laden with beautiful artwork and typefaces, embodying the glitz of the Hollywood era that spawned them. They carry a mythology that transcends the dishes they list. While plenty of these establishments are remembered only by their menus, there are some survivors, and their magic persists. When I sit down in a glamorous establishment like Pacific Dining Car, I can pretend the lights and cameras are on me, despite the fact that — even had they been flush enough with cash and dressed well enough — my grandparents would never have stepped inside, thanks to a silent kind of ethnic segregation.
Still, looking at an endless list of glamorous menus quickly becomes repetitive, especially since food like this largely just doesn't exist anymore. Who still eats Lobster Thermidor (a cool $1.60 in 1942, at Bette Davis favorite Perino's) or "galantine of capon" (just 50 cents at Tait's, circa 1905)? To break it up, Kun has recruited chefs from around LA to "remix" classic menus. It's a well-intentioned exercise that plays out awkwardly. Chef Jazz Singsanong of Thaitown's Jitlada adapts the table d'hote dinners from the long-gone Sugie's Tropics on Rodeo Drive into a "spicy tuna samwich [sic] with spicy mayo." Mozza's Nancy Silverton suggests a milk-fed veal tripe soup instead of a bowl of piping hot mock turtle soup (traditionally made with calves' brains), simply substituting one less-popular part of the animal for another.
Far more relatable than the Hollywood icons on display in the book are the menus from affordable diners and coffee shops, Mildred Pierce greasy spoons slinging fried chicken and pies for a more relatable clientele. Many of these restaurants still stand. The Original Pantry hasn't had to lock its doors since the 1920's (because it never closes), and various Googie-designed diners like Pann's have managed to stick around since the 1950's.
I'm much more at home over a plate of corned beef hash or fluffy pancakes than a bowl of mock turtle soup or Chicken a la King. It's at these humble places where LA's restaurant history coincides with who I am, and how I eat. This isn't just because food today is more casual, but also because the definition of a good meal isn't limited to a French pedigree or a higher price tag. The timeless story of Angeleno food — and American food — will always be in the humble dishes served at everyday restaurants, not the haute cuisine of midcentury white-tablecloth institutions. Their comforting dishes not only live in the hearts of older generations, but capture the affection of younger ones. Everybody loves tacos. Everybody loves pancakes. Everybody loves noodles. Everybody loves a burger.
When I've lived, dined, and died in Los Angeles, posterity will only have a mishmash of fuzzy Instagram photos to remember the places where I ate
Menus are different now, and they serve a different purpose. At high-end restaurants: the list of dishes is often aggressively minimalist, a lineup of primary ingredients presented without any explanation or categorization. Embellishment is now in the hands of servers, who sell the details while haughty chefs project hipster credibility with their often inscrutable compositions. The menus double as a method of separating out seasoned diners from the newbies, those who don't need to ask about esoteric descriptors and ingredients from those who do. In mom-and-pop settings, menus are driven by pragmatism: the list of boiled dumplings at Din Tai Fung comes on a card along with a short golf pencil for you to check off your selections.
Menus used to be souvenirs; now, we're more likely to use our cell phones to recall a meal than reminisce over a paper menu or a matchbook. When I've lived, dined, and died in Los Angeles, posterity will only have a mishmash of fuzzy Instagram photos to remember the places where I ate, not classy bills of fare preserved in a library collection and then again in a book. Menus aren't sexy anymore. So I appreciate Kun's work in chronicling LA's progression from Western terminus to Hollywood free-for-all to multi-cultural hodgepodge. In displaying Los Angeles as the pastiche that it is, I think we can look forward, hungry and confident, knowing that eating in this town means having the world as your menu.
Photos: Los Angeles Public Library menu collection