Given the chance, I will opt for a children’s menu at any restaurant — not for the cheaper prices (I order off the regular menu), but for the coloring pages it contains. There’s something both calming and fulfilling about dutifully coloring inside the lines with cheap crayons that are so waxy they take on a translucent quality even on the page. At times it has felt childish, but the enjoyment I get from coloring has always outweighed any self-consciousness. In recent years, coloring pages have bridged the gap from child’s distraction to a relaxation tool for people of all ages. I can’t help but feel a little smug over all the years I secretly practiced mindfulness in diner booths, waiting for the rest of the world to catch on.
The children’s menus now commonplace at many family-friendly restaurants have evolved over a long period of time. The children’s menu itself began to appear in the early 20th century in department stores and hotels, and as Slate noted, early adopters included New York’s Waldorf Astoria.
Early children’s menus were very similar to versions we see today. A 1938 menu from the New Haven Railroad, which was archived and preserved by the New York Public Library, was designed to look like an elephant, and would have also served as a keepsake for children traveling on the railroad. The inside features different images of animals, each corresponding to a meal option, and children were instructed to order by picture.
Meanwhile, the menu for the Colony Kitchen — which appears to be from the same time period — features a coloring page that isn’t so different from current children’s menus. The “tiny tot menu” prices each dish at 42 cents, with options recognizable today as typical children’s fare, including grilled cheese, fish sticks, and mini burgers. The design of the menu is simple, featuring two young girls in the kitchen, one cooking and the other tasting soup. The whole menu is printed in a bright azure ink. On the bottom of the page it reads, in capital letters, “Take me home and color me.”
Even these early examples of children’s menus had all the components that make them so appealing. The bright design captured the attention of young visitors, the limited options made ordering simpler, the images and interactive aspect of the coloring helped keep children entertained, and by keeping the menus, kids and their families were also keeping the restaurant’s promotional material.
This design wasn’t revolutionary: Children had been using coloring books since the McLoughin Brothers released the The Little Folks’ Painting Book in 1880. The rise of crayons in the early 1900s — Binney & Smith Company, which would later better be known as Crayola, started producing its namesake product in 1903 — helped popularize coloring books further.
“The 1930s is when two inventions that have been out there for a while come together: the crayon and the coloring book,” says University of Southern Mississippi professor Andrew Haley, who has researched and written about children dining out. Of menus and other incentives used to market to children, Haley adds “all of these things were innovations in the 1930s, so that they were tried locally and on a smaller scale. They really would take off in the 1950s, after World War II.”
While most children’s menus today seem to stick mainly to coloring, older menus offered novel ways to keep children entertained. A Pig’n Whistle menu dating to the ’40s was printed to be a wearable mask of a pig. (It also included a complimentary postcard.) Other establishments’ menus included features like built-in spinnable wheels. In the ’60s and ’70s, Howard Johnson’s printed its menus in a special shape with spiral slits, which allowed guests to wear the menus as hats once the order was placed. This chain in particular may have had a hand in popularizing this type of children’s menu. “Howard Johnson’s, by the mid-’50s, is the largest restaurant chain in the United States and direct-marketing to children with menus,” Haley says. “And menus that become toys was a big part of their program.”
In the ’70s, IHOP created an elaborate football-themed menu. Small plastic helmets could be purchased for 24 cents each, and a cardboard game board with punch-out tokens introduced a fantasy football element. Under the heading “How To Be The Big Winner Every Time,” the directions read, “It’s easy! Before or after the game, visit your neighborhood International House of Pancakes.”
Haley believes that these collectible-driven promotions haven’t gone away, but instead became a distinct product. “In some ways the Happy Meal is the ultimate version of this,” he says. “Yes, the toy is already preassembled in most cases, but it’s the evolution of the idea that children get a reward for going out to eat. What you’re seeing is less that the idea has died, but rather greater segmentation of the marketplace.”
On the other hand, coloring books marketed for adults have become unexpectedly popular in the past few years. In 2011, Johanna Basford released Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book. Since then, the book has sold over 11 million copies, making room for a new market.
Not surprisingly, some restaurants have begun to catch on to the adult coloring trend. At Urban Chestnut Brewing Company in St. Louis, a monthly coloring club regularly sells out. In San Diego, the bar Polite Provisions has created a full menu of 25 pages of cocktail-themed coloring. “We want to take it back to simpler times, like Main Street USA,” says Polite Provisions bartender Erick Castro. “We liked the idea of doing something playful. It’s supposed to show people that just because we take our cocktails seriously doesn’t mean we take ourselves seriously.”
Like the activity pages typical of children’s menus, the Polite Provisions menu also includes games like word searches, Mad Libs, a maze, and trivia. “We intentionally put [the Mad Libs] in there because you can’t do it by yourself,” Castro says. “We wanted to get people to engage with each other, have fun, and remind themselves why they go out to drink in the first place.”
They’re not the only ones with that philosophy. In LA’s Koreatown, Art Major, a space that’s part bar and part gallery, has also brought coloring into the mix. Art Major was created by Jessica Pak and Brian Lee, who, as the name suggests, were art history majors at USC. The bar has a bring-your-own-food policy, and Art Major has published four coloring books specifically for the venue that are available for purchase. Free coloring pages are also provided at all tables. In addition to the coloring books, patrons can buy markers out of a vending machine, which also contains small items like playing cards, or even rent Fujifilm cameras.
“[The coloring books] are all designed and hand done by local artists we know, as well as printed and bound in-house at Art Major,” Lee said via email. “There are a lot of low-quality coloring books out there, from the perspective of design quality, and we wanted to create artist-driven books.”
Art Major was established with creativity in mind. “Art Major is as much a space designed to represent local artists as it is a space designed to get our patrons to be more hands-on and practice simple creative challenges,” Lee said. “Coloring books and coloring in general are great fits for Art Major as it not only helps us represent artists, but allows us to provide a creatively engaging activity to our patron.”
When coloring first entered restaurants, it was through the guise of children’s menus. But instead of thinking of coloring as a children’s distraction, it should be considered the Trojan horse that sneaks creativity back into mealtime. While a few establishments have begun to take advantage of this overlooked opportunity, the reality is finding a coloring menu not aimed for children is still far from common. So for now, I will continue to ask for a children’s menu — because art shouldn’t have an age limit.
Chloe Arnold is a writer living in San Diego.
Editor: Erin DeJesus