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Wednesday, August 27, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

A menu collection chronicles the evolution of the city's restaurant scene

Viewing the menus


The Northwest Menu Collection is available for viewing by visiting the History, Travel & Maps desk at the temporary Central Library, 800 Pike St., Seattle. Due to budget shortfalls, the library is closed this week and will reopen Tuesday, Sept. 2.

Every menu tells a story. And if history repeats itself, someday, somewhere, someone will pick up a menu from 2003, read about "small plates" and "large plates," organically farmed vegetables, troll-caught salmon and Niman Ranch meats — and they will scratch their heads.

They'll smile at such quaint menu entries as Thai curried mussels, micro greens, sashimi-grade tuna, goat cheese and prosciutto pizza, chipotle-spiced tenderloin, ginger crème brulee and molten chocolate cake. Their eyes will surely widen at the thought of such bargains as a $60 tasting menu, a $12 artisan cheese plate and a $7 Cosmopolitan — whatever that was.

Every menu tells a story, and the scores of them comprising the Northwest Menu Collection — a small but significant treasure trove of Seattle restaurant history — tell ours. Three flat gray boxes, stored in the depths of the Seattle Public Library's main branch and retrieved for perusal, afford hours spent lost in the luxury of time travel.

Talk about a taste of history.

In the 1940s, patrons at the Spanish Castle — perched midway between Seattle and Tacoma and immortalized in song by Jimi Hendrix — danced the night away with Frankie Roth's Orchestra, drinking lime rickeys and fueling up on 15-cent hamburgers. At the Olympic they ordered broiled sardines on toast (50 cents), cracked crab with mayonnaise (60 cents) and 70-cent veal chops. New Year's Eve 1945 found lucky diners at the China Pheasant, where an $8.50 six-course dinner began with hearts of celery and ripe olives, featured roast turkey and French succotash, and ended with orange sherbert and pumpkin pie.

In 1950, Canlis was a new jewel set above Lake Union, where guests dined on $1.25 lobster cocktails, $4.25 filet mignon and "gargantuan baked Idaho potato — tubbed, scrubbed and oil-rubbed" (50 cents). In 1962, the menu at the Polynesia on Pier 51 lured guests with prose and the promise of "piquant enticements eloquently hinting at what's to follow" as well as Pago Pago — "vichyssoise touched with mangoes and a thought of curry" (65 cents). In 1966, members of Seattle's Harbor Club were treated to a "Special Gourmet Dinner Menu" featuring (ooh la la!) "consommé Dame Blanche, Entrecote grille Chatelaine and haricots verts Maître d'hôtel."

In the 70s, Seattle's cognoscenti headed to Brasserie Pittsbourg for canard a l'orange ($6) with complimentary "soupe, salad, petit-pain, beurre et cafe." Wine-lovers stopped at the Athenian Inn to drink Mateus ($6 bottle), Blue Nun ($8 bottle) and Almaden French Colombard (75 cents a glass). At the long-lived Ruby Chow's, Chinese food-fans feasted on almond-breaded chicken ($1.75) and sipped abalone soup (75 cents), while at the Snug, the health-conscious ordered sandwiches with organic cheddar cheese, alfalfa sprouts, lettuce and tomato on homemade bread ($3.20).

Appetites through the decades

In the '80s a fresh vegetable tray with Gorgonzola cheese-dip ($2.75) fed two at Simonetti's, where salad was free with cannelloni or lasagna ($6.95). At Horatio's, an Olde English-themed restaurant on Lake Union, "hearty victuals" included "an ambrosial concoction of (steak) filet" ($6.50) topped with asparagus spears, crab legs and Béarnaise sauce: "Superb dining!" if they should say so themselves. And at Viet Nam Dynasty, pho ($1.50) was made with a broth whose recipe was passed down through generations and brought to Seattle from Saigon where it was faithfully reproduced, according to the menu.

Yes, food fans, there was a time when Vietnamese noodle soup was an anomaly that needed a descriptor; when Mexican food was so exotic that eateries such as Bruno's Mexican Italian Restaurant provided guests with a menu-"diccionario" to explain the words taco, tortilla and guacamole. There was an era when reservations were made by dialing phone numbers beginning with MA(in) 3, RA(inier) 4, GL(encourt) 5, and AT(water) 6.

Perhaps we'd be better off forgetting we lived through a decade when barflies ordered a "Sloe Easy Screw Against The Wall" ($4.50) from a cocktail menu at a restaurant that dared to go by the name Lion O'Reilly's & B.J. Monkeyshines'. And do we really need to be reminded that once upon a time, Sanka was the decaf-of-choice at the city's finest restaurants? If we do, there's a Space Needle menu to prove it.

As a chronicler of the Seattle restaurant scene, I found myself lost in this collection, enamored of its beautifully designed keepsake-menus from the 40s, 50s, and 60s; nostalgic over Moosewood Cookbook-styled handwritten menus that were all the rage in the 70s and early 80s; and sorry to see only a few menus from such continuing successes as the Dahlia Lounge and Café Lago. Exploring this collection provided an opportunity to reminiscence over beloved restaurants, now defunct, to "dine" at restaurants I've never been to, and to delve into the eating habits of those who lived before me.

Squirreled away behind a reference desk marked "History, Travel & Maps" in the far corner of the library's third floor, I read menus from places that live in my consciousness but died before I moved here: Les Copains, Mrs. Malia's, the original El Gaucho, Rosellini & McHugh's Nine-10. I inhaled imagined aromas from others I'd always meant to dine in, but didn't: Henry's Off-Broadway, Settebello, The Surrogate Hostess, the Mirabeau.

In these boxes I found blasts from my past: menus from Café Sport (where I first tasted kasu cod, courtesy of chef Tom Douglas; Umberto's Ristorante (my first waitressing job in Seattle); Greenlake Jake's (where I ate bacon-cheeseburgers and bought a T-shirt that read: "Under One Billion Sold"); Fullers (site of my 30th birthday dinner), and Matzoh Mamma (the perfect venue when my mood said, "There's no place like home").

History's menu mysteries

There were many menus that left me with more questions than answers. Did anyone actually order the $50 Alaska burger (serves 20) at Mister C's Restaurant near the "dome stadium"? And was the price right at The Price Is Right, where sandwiches were popular menu-items and Rainier Draft cost 55 cents? Where was Der Adler — the Eagle? And why isn't it still around? If it were, I might know where to send readers who call looking for an authentic German restaurant serving bauernschmaus and "Swabian-style" poached liver dumplings.

I long to know what happened to Charles J.E. Blanc, a restaurateur who served frog legs and "Aristocratic Dinner at a Democratic Price: $1.40" at Blanc's Cafe — "Where Epicureans Meet." What's the story behind that very serious-looking chef, whose photo is reproduced on an enormous menu and whose menu offers a diatribe including this heartfelt quote: "If, after the experience of over forty years, and after studying the culinary art and the wishes of the public in the leading centers of the world, I were not able to offer the people of Seattle better food and better service at reasonable fare, I would consider my life work a dismal failure."

Perhaps I should direct my questions to reference librarian Steve Kiesow, who has manned the reference stacks at the Seattle Public Library for 35 years. He's the fine fellow who introduced me to the only existing library copy of Restaurants of Seattle 1853-1960" — a bound, typewritten book by Hattie Graham Horrocks and a priceless must-read that I'd gladly trade for my first edition of M.F. K. Fisher's "A Cordiall Water. " He's also the man behind the Northwest Menu Collection.

The germ of an idea

Back in the early '70s, Kiesow explains, he and his cronies would often return from lunch breaks with menus, later posted on a work-room bulletin board. "One day, a painter came around to paint our work room and we had to clear off the board," he recalls. "Librarians being librarians, we couldn't throw out the menus. That's when someone came up with an idea: Why not start a collection?"

It was Kiesow who added the Spanish Castle menu from his personal stash. Dated 1940, it remains among the oldest entries. His colleague Linda Saunto began to collect menus in earnest (which explains the Rover's menu signed "To Linda With Luv" — by Thierry Rautureau, dated 1991 — among the last to make its way into the fold.

The collection's greatest shortcoming is not its lack of scope, nor its haphazard filing system (made worse when I got through with it): it's that few of the menus are dated, and most offer no address, making for a frustrating guessing-game of "when?" and "where?"

Early on, Kiesow says, he took responsibility for indexing the menus, and you can find his handiwork typed on 3-by-5 cards kept in an old-fashioned card catalog. Though he planned to collect and index additional menus, lack of time and budget constraints put the kibosh on those plans.

For now the boxes languish, yet they remain a riveting resource and a revealing look into our past, our culture and our appetites. They've also given me a swell idea. As an inveterate menu junkie and professional menu-stealer whose files fill two large cabinets, I believe I've found the perfect place to lay my menus to rest when I retire to that window-table in the sky: I plan to will them to the Seattle Public Library.

Nancy Leson: can be reached at 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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