Touring Chicago's Culinary History

Get a glimpse into the past with the Chicago History Museum's historical menu collection

Chicago History Museum

Aeroplane Room Soda Fountain (1932/1932) by Hotel ShermanChicago History Museum

Welcome!

Welcome to the Chicago History Museum’s historical menu collection. We invite you to come with us back in time, through Chicago’s restaurant history. From the first fine dining establishment to open in the new city in 1835 to the recent contributions to world cuisine, learn about the origins of Chicago’s status as one of the top food cities of the world. 

Lake House Hotel Exterior (1835/1850) by Lake House HotelChicago History Museum

Chicago’s introduction to fine dining

Opened in 1835, just two years after Chicago was incorporated as a town (and two years before it was incorporated as a city), the Lake House Hotel on Kinzie was the city’s first fine dining establishment. Featuring such amenities as menu cards, napkins, and toothpicks, many felt the restaurant was too hoity toity for a rough and tumble town like Chicago and it was difficult to convince the average Chicagoan that fine dining was worthwhile. (Kraig, 1997) In fact, the sheriff shut down a Chicago branch of New York’s famed Delmonico restaurant after just a few months because “practical-minded Chicagoans refused to pay high prices for food.” (Duis, 2006)

Lake House Menu Front Cover, The Lake House, 1858/1858, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Lake House Menu, The Lake House, 1858/1858, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Lake House Wine List, The Lake House, 1858/1858, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Palmer House Dining Room Interior (1880/1890) by Palmer House HotelChicago History Museum

Rebuilding after the great fire

After the great fire of 1871, only five restaurants remained in the city directory and despite the best efforts of the city’s elite, its dining scene was dismal. (Kraig, 1997) A Chicago Tribune reporter described Chicago as “probably the worst off in this one essential of any great American city” (Duis, 2006). However, by the late 1870s, the city was entering its first golden age of dining. Establishments like the Palmer House Hotel, which had burned to the ground just 13 days after its initial opening, were determined to rebuild a better city than the one they had before.

Palmer House Menu, Front and Back Cover, Palmer House Hotel, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Palmer House Dinner Menu, New York Kitchen, 1884/1884, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Park View Place exterior, 1880. (1880/1880) by Novelli, JackChicago History Museum

Early restaurant issues

Not everything was so sunny for early restaurant owners. City restaurant licensing did not exist until 1906, and cholera was a consistent problem across the city. During its worst year, 1891, the typhoid death rate was 174 per 100,000 persons ("1900 Flow of Chicago River Reversed", 1997).

Therefore, the average restaurant-goer had to determine for themselves, rather than looking to a government agency, whether it was safe to eat at a particular restaurant. This issue is highlighted in this menu from New York Kitchen in 1887.

New York Kitchen Menu Front Cover, New York Kitchen, 1887/1887, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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New York Kitchen Menu, New York Kitchen, 1887/1887, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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New York Kitchen Menu Back Cover, New York Kitchen, 1887/1887, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Circa 1890s restaurant interior. (1890/1900) by N/AChicago History Museum

The emergence of star chefs and foodie culture 

The 1893 World’s Fair brought sophisticated travelers from across the world to Chicago, and Chicago wanted to show off its new gastronomic culture. Chicagoans had developed a taste for oysters and seafood, and restaurateurs who could provide the freshest catch were in high demand.

 

One of the most famous chefs and restauranteurs at the time was Charles Rector. Known as the “great oyster maven”, Rector opened his own restaurant after gaining a reputation at the famed Boston Oyster House. It was said, “If there's any fish you want, go to (Charles) Rector, and he'll get it.” (Kraig, 1997)

Rector Oyster House Co. Bill of Fare Front Cover, Rector Oyster House Co.; Charles E. Rector, 1893/1893, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Rector Oyster House Co. Bill of Fare, Rector Oyster House Co.; Charles E. Rector, 1893/1893, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Busy evening at the Midway Gardens in 1914. (1914/1914) by Kaufman & Fabry Co.Chicago History Museum

All-in-one entertainment venues

Many restaurants added cabaret facilities when the fad hit Chicago in 1913. A couple could spend an entire day or evening “on the town” in just one restaurant. Places like Winter Garden featured afternoon tea dances scored by an orchestra and shows featuring vaudeville stars. Tea dances in particular became popular in the 1880s and continued this popularity through the 1920s. 

Winter Garden Menu Front Cover, Winter Garden, 1917/1917, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Winter Garden Menu Back Cover, Winter Garden, 1917/1917, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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"Liquid Lifetime" installation. (1935/1935) by N/AChicago History Museum

Dining out during Prohibition

One of the highlights of pre-Prohibition dining was the cocktail list. In fact, many “restaurants” offered free food with the purchase of alcohol. This had the effect of making eating out a gendered and not very family-friendly activity. Where unaccompanied women or families were allowed to eat, separate dining areas were created. During Prohibition, in order for restaurants to stay afloat, menus began to feature many, many different juices and ice creams (as this Plows menu shows) to make up for the lack of alcohol. This allowed women and children to dine out publicly and effectively phased out (public) male-only establishments. 

Plows Menu Front Cover, Plows, 1923/1923, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Plows Menu, Pg. 1, Plows, 1923/1923, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Plows Menu, A La Carte, Plows, 1923/1923, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Plows Menu Back Cover, Plows, 1923/1923, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Chez Paree Interior (1933/1933) by Chez Paree; Mike Fritzel and Joe JacobsonChicago History Museum

Chicago gangster culture

It would be difficult to talk about Chicago’s restaurant and nightlife scene without mentioning the city’s infamous gangsters. In particular, the Chez Paree was a highly popular supper club in Streeterville from the 1930s-1960s. The restaurant/club had mob connections and gambling was conducted in the back room, called the Key Club. (Samors & Bronsky, 2011)

Chez Paree Dinner Menu, Chez Paree; Mike Fritzel and Joe Jacobson, 1938/1938, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Chez Paree Dinner Menu, Chez Paree; Mike Fritzel and Joe Jacobson, 1938/1938, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Triangle Restaurant interior, circa 1930s/40s. (1930/1950) by N/AChicago History Museum


Wartime Sacrifices

When World War II began, it was not only the soldiers who sacrificed. Life at home was diminished with strict rules and regulations imposed on every aspect of daily life, from the clothing people wore to what they ate. Menus from this period are full of interesting details about life during the war- certain foods were rationed, and it is clear that there  was, or there was believed to be, a large problem with restaurants selling food from the black market because many of the menus explicitly state that they do not.

Bernard J. Elfman Menu, Bernard J. Elfman's Sandwich Shop; Bernard J. Elfman, 1943/1943, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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B/G Menu Back Cover, B/G Sandwich Shop, 1944/1944, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Victorian Room Dinner Menu, Victorian Room; Palmer House Hotel, 1941/1941, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Don the Beachcomber Drinks Menu Front Cover (1944/1944) by Don the Beachcomber; Donn BeachChicago History Museum

Escapism in WWII and Beyond

When American servicemen returned home from World War II, they brought with them stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific. This newfound interest, and a need to escape drudgery and horrors of WWII, led to the establishment of tiki bars across the country, including in Chicago, during the 1940s and 1950s, and all the way into the 1960s.

Kon Tiki Ports Menu Front Cover, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Kon Tiki Ports Menu Inside Cover, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Kon Tiki Ports Menu, Pg. 1, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Kon Tiki Ports Menu, Pg. 2, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Kon Tiki Ports Menu, Pg. 3, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Kon Tiki Ports Menu, Pg. 4, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Kon Tiki Ports Menu, Pg. 5, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Kon Tiki Ports Menu, Pg. 6, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Kon Tiki Ports Menu, Pg. 7, Kon Tiki Ports; Steve Crane Associates; Steve Crane, 1962/1962, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Pump Room Waiter (1940/1940) by The Pump RoomChicago History Museum

Celebrity Hangouts and Hotspots

Before air travel was commonly used, Chicago was a stopover point for celebrities traveling by train between New York and Los Angeles. Restaurants vied to have their booths filled by these traveling dignitaries, and there were certain spots where a celebrity sighting was all but guaranteed. The Pump Room is perhaps the most well-known of these, but Fritzel’s and the Edgewater Beach Hotel hosted some of the most notable celebrities of their day, from Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Pump Room Menu Front Cover, The Pump Room, 1950/1950, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Pump Room Menu, Pg. 1, The Pump Room, 1950/1950, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Pump Room Menu, Pg. 2, The Pump Room, 1950/1950, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Pump Room Menu, Pg. 3, The Pump Room, 1950/1950, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Pump Room Flaming Sword Menu, The Pump Room, 1950/1950, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Chicago's Flaming Saganaki (2012) by "The Best Life" Blog (anonymous)Chicago History Museum

Chicago's Lasting Contributions to Global Cuisine 

Chicago has made countless contributions to global food culture, from the obvious (deep dish pizza) to the less-so (chicken a la king). But few know that the popular Greek specialty, flaming saganaki, was created in Chicago. Though the fried cheese dish is a staple of Greek cuisine, flambéing it tableside in brandy is a touch created by Parthenon owner Chris Liakouras. 

The Parthenon Menu Front Cover, The Parthenon; Liakouras Family, 1974/1974, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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The Parthenon Menu, The Parthenon; Liakouras Family, 1974/1974, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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The Parthenon Menu Back Cover, The Parthenon; Liakouras Family, 1974/1974, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Circa 1895 Restaurant Interior (1890/1900) by N/AChicago History Museum

Thank you!

Thank you for joining us on this brief tour through Chicago's restaurant and dining history. We hope to bring you more in this series, including a look at Chicago's immigrant populations' contributions to the dining scene and a look back at some of the city's most famous tiki bars, so if you liked this, let us know by emailing chirestauranthistory@gmail.com.

Credits: Story

Created by Jorie Braunold, with assistance from Ellen Keith, Sarah Yarrito, and Peter Alter of the Chicago History Museum.

References:
1900 Flow of Chicago River Reversed. (1997, August). Retrieved July 11, 2017, from https://web.archive.org/web/20070307091435/http://www.chipublib.org/004chicago/timeline/riverflow.html
Duis, P. (2006). Challenging Chicago coping with everyday life, 1837-1920. Urbana: University of of Illinois Press.
Duis, P. (2006). Challenging Chicago coping with everyday life, 1837-1920. Urbana: University of of Illinois Press.
Kraig, B. (1997, July 16). Glazing [sic] Through Chicago's Food History. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 11, 2017, from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-07-16/entertainment/9707220045_1_chicago-river-food-city-oysters
Samors, N., & Bronsky, E. (2011). Chicago's Classic Restaurants: Past, Present and Future (1st ed.). Chicago, IL: Chicago's Books Press.

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