Sunday, August 27, 2023

Music on the Menu


“Music with dinner is an insult both to the cook and the violinist,” observed English writer G. K. Chesterton. Nevertheless, music has become an inescapable part of eating outside the home. While menus almost never reveal what was played in the background of restaurants and hotel dining rooms, they reflect the world of music in a myriad of other ways. 

In the mid-nineteenth century, a separate program was printed for special occasions at which musical entertainment was provided during or after the meal. A case in point is shown below from the spring of 1878, when President Rutherford B. Hayes and his party sailed down the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Wilmington and back. The afternoon excursion included a collation featuring oysters, sweetbreads, and truffled capons.

The lengthy program indicates there was no shortage of musical  entertainment during the presidential cruise.

Patrick Gilmore’s 22nd Regiment Band was a popular summertime attraction at Coney Island in the 1880s. The Irish-born bandleader was a prominent figure in American music and the first to feature the saxophone. The front of the menu below shows the program for afternoon and evening concerts at the Manhattan Beach Hotel on August 29, 1880. The extensive à la carte menu and wine list was made by Borden & Cain, a printer that specialized in daily menus.

In 1882, the Schubert Club in Salem, Massachusetts hosted a tea party at which selections from Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera “Patience” were performed. The musical event was held at an Italianate-style library named Plummer Hall, as shown on this card reflecting the aesthetic movement.

Hungarian-born soprano Etelka Gerster was fêted when she and other opera stars visited San Francisco in 1884. This dinner was held on the same night that her formidable rival, Adelina Patti, was performing a concert in town. The next evening Gerster appeared as “Margherita” in Faust, while Patti’s admirers held a grand ball in her honor. The rivalry was not unlike the one between divas Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi eighty years later.

This carte du jour from the Hoffman House in 1884 offers terrapin and canvasback duck, attesting to the upper-class nature of this tony hotel overlooking Madison Square. Following the custom in Europe, luxury hotels in the United States provided music during the meal service. The musical numbers are shown on the back of the card. The scarcity of such examples suggests the program for daily performances was not published on the menu for very long. For the most part, the music directors at restaurants and hotels preferred to read the room rather than prepare a set program in advance. 

Someone seemingly wrote the music program down on the verso of this small card from the New York University Alumni Association dinner at Sherry’s in 1899.

Music was also provided in eating places serving the middle and lower classes, a practice that may have begun with the arrival of German beer halls in the late 1840s. The 15-page booklet 
below from the venerable Atlantic Garden on the Bowery contains advertisements, a menu, and the entertainment program for the week of September 7, 1896. 

The Lotos Club in New York honors distinguished figures from all walks of life at its “state dinners.” In the early twentieth century, many of the symbolic and allegorical menus on these occasions were created by club member Thomas Sindelar, who claimed to have studied with  Czech artist Alphonse Mucha in Paris. The menus below come from state dinners for violinist Richard Arnold in 1903 and tenor Enrico Caruso in 1916. 

Calling themselves “The Bohemians,” the New York Musicians’ Club also produced large and elaborate menus during this period. The club honored Polish pianist and statesman Ignace Jean Paderewski at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1914. 

In 1915, the New York Musicians’ Club hosted Polish soprano Marcella Sembrich at Delmonico’s. 

By the turn of the last century, many types of foreign restaurants were catering to urbanites in search of an exotic dining experience. Some ethnic restaurants became as well known for their music as they were for their cuisine. One such place was the Café Boulevard located at Second Avenue and 10th Street, a section of the city once dubbed “The Hungarian Broadway.” The 1903 guide titled “Where and How to Dine in New York” noted the “languorous, passionate, yet lonely appeal” of its renowned Hungarian orchestra, one of the restaurant’s main attractions. The menu below from 1909 contains photo images of its orchestra and its quartet.

The Kneisel Quartet was the most outstanding string quartet in the country in 1910 when it celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary at the Café des Beaux Arts. The fashionable restaurant in New York hosted its 
soirée artistique on Thursday nights, highlighting performers such as Lillian Russell, Anna Held, and Isabella Duncan.

Leading hotels often provided concert music on special occasions, as shown by the menu below from Seattle’s Butler Hotel on Thanksgiving in 1911.

The lyrics of songs like “Hitchy-Koo” and “You’re My Baby” are provided in this menu from the 1912-1913 New Year’s Eve celebration at Techau Tavern in San Francisco. In 1917, the trendy cabaret became one of the first places in the country to host jazz performances.

Smalls’ Paradise opened in 1925 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. It was the only major nightclub in Harlem with an African-American owner and a racially integrated clientele. This menu from the mid-1930s contains the wine list and Chinese-American dishes like chop suey and chow mein that were typical late-night fare at clubs. The back cover offers steaks, chops, and house specialties, such as chicken Mexicano, chicken ala (sic) Maryland, and Southern fried chicken with corn fritters and sweet potatoes. 

The insert below from 1947 promotes Muzak, a brand of music commercialized for retail establishments in the mid-1930s. The defense industry used it to boost 
productivity during the Second World War, and restaurants adopted it more widely after the war. Later denigrated as elevator music,” Muzak was perhaps a fitting accompaniment for the mediocre cuisine of the postwar era when restaurants were still languishing in the doldrums caused by Prohibition and the Great Depression. 

Saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was nicknamed “Yardbird,” was the headliner at Birdland when it opened in New York in December of 1949. During its first ten years, the jazz club attracted two million visitors and was portrayed in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road about the Beat generation.

Ever since the Café Wha? opened in Greenwich Village in 1959, it has presented new talent in rock and folk music. This fragile survivor comes from the early 1960s when Bob Dylan was performing at the club, giving voice to the Counterculture generation.

Jefferson Airplane, one of the pioneers of psychedelic rock, was practically the house band at the Matrix when it opened in 1965. The nightclub was part of the formative years of the rock music scene in San Francisco. 

In 1966, the Metropolitan Opera moved to the Lincoln Center where its new restaurant featured spectacular chandeliers and masterpieces by Russian-French artist Marc Chagall. The cover of the menu that year was illustrated by French artist Raoul Dufy, as shown on the one below from opening night. 

The Grateful Dead performed a benefit concert in Santa Barbara in 1978 for the Pacific Alliance, an organization dedicated to stopping the proliferation of nuclear power. The bill of fare shown below was created by a volunteer who cooked the meal backstage for the musicians and crew using an array of electric frying pans.

Menus rarely tell us what music was played in restaurants, at least not since the fin de siècle when Viennese waltzes floated through the air at upper-class establishments. This largely-undocumented part of our social history is continually changing with the times. These days diners are likely to be subjected to a high-decibel rendition of the chefs playlist, making Muzak seem like an attractive alternative.  

1 comment:

Jan Whitaker said...

Fascinating set of menus! Love the Yardbird page from Birdland.