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Rediscovering L.A. Through Old Restaurant Menus

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The 50 menus on display were pulled from the LA Public Library’s collection of 12,000 menus, including this one from Ships Coffee Shop. (The Library Foundation of Los Angeles)

Los Angeles has a rich culinary history, due to the waves of immigrants who settled in Southern California and brought their food traditions with them. The restaurants they opened can tell us a lot about how people use food to shape their own identities of community, culture and class. A new book and exhibit of old LA restaurant menus reveals how the city has evolved, through food.

The Library Foundation of Los Angeles is presenting the exhibit, called “To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City,” in the Getty Gallery at the Los Angeles Central Library until Nov. 13. There’s also a new coffee table book of the same name. It’s written by Josh Kun, an associate professor at the University of Southern California.

“So much of what we try to do in the book is use restaurants as a way to think about the kind of layered histories of Los Angeles," Kun says, "what’s been built over constantly, whose stories have been erased to build new stories on top of those, how every single space that we enter bears the traces of all the spaces that came before it."

Menu cover from the Golden Pagoda restaurant.
Menu cover from the Golden Pagoda restaurant. (The Library Foundation of Los Angeles)
RS16356_GoldenPagoda_MenuInteriorAutographs-LDLA-qut_RESIZED
Autographs fill the Golden Pagoda menu. (The Library Foundation of Los Angeles)

Evan Kleiman, a chef and the host of KCRW’s weekly radio show Good Food, remembers one such restaurant from her childhood.

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“It was called Casa de Ibarra," she recalls. "And it was the place where I learned how to tuck my leftover food into a flour tortilla and roll it up. One of the waiters there taught me."

Now it’s a hipster taqueria called Diablo Urban Taco Fabricator.

“And before that, when I was a teenager, it was a place called Temple of the Rainbow, where I learned how to make carrot smoothies and bake bread that weighed 20 pounds per loaf,” Kleiman says.

Photos from the library’s archives of old LA restaurants line the walls of the exhibit. The photos include fancy French restaurants and taco trucks, and such establishments as Forbidden Palace Chinese Food, Daddy Grants Old Time Pit Barbecue, and Don the Beachcomber’s tiki bar.

The menus are a feast for the eyes. There are about 50 of them housed in glass display cases, and about 200 in the book. They have old-timey letterpress fonts, vintage illustrations, and list offerings like avocado filled with fresh seafood and Thousand Island dressing. They were pulled from the LA Public Library’s collection of 12,000 menus.

“Menus tell a story of a city," says John Szabo, the city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. "And to know LA, you need to know food in LA, and you need to know about dining in LA, and that’s one of the things that our menu collection does."

At the outset, Kun reached out to chefs to collaborate on the project, including Kogi founder Roy Choi. The exhibit includes video screens playing interviews with some of those chefs, including Bricia Lopez of Guelaguetza, and Cynthia Hawkins, owner of Hawkins House of Burgers in Watts.

“There’s not that many places you can eat really good quality food in Watts. I’m just being honest with you,” Hawkins says in the video. “Maybe a good restaurant would come here, but it’s really sad to say that there’s not that many places in Watts that people can eat really good, quality food, and that’s so sad.”

That’s one of the themes of the project: food inequality. Los Angeles County has more people who lack access to healthy food than any other county in the U.S. And as rising rent prices push immigrant families out of some neighborhoods, Kun says new restaurants mark those changes.

“If a restaurant can open up in a working class neighborhood with $25 appetizers and survive, what does that mean?" Kun asks. "It sends a message that, like, hey, it’s OK, come on in, water’s warm, and opens the floodgates in a lot of ways.”

Take Grand Central Market in downtown LA. It’s a food court where a lot of upscale places are opening up, including a juice bar, an oyster bar and a fancy cheese shop.

“You know, I don’t really like to call it gentrified because I don’t think that’s what it is. It’s not coming to a neighborhood that didn’t have this kind of history,” says Micah Wexler, owner of Wexler’s Deli. “Downtown was at one time a very vibrant, celebrated place, and we’re trying to bring it back to that.”

Menu cover from the Brown Derby restaurant.
Menu cover from the Brown Derby restaurant. (The Library Foundation of Los Angeles)
A Brown Derby menu from September 1953.
A Brown Derby menu from September 1953. (The Library Foundation of Los Angeles)

For the book, Kun invited chefs to “remix” old menus and give them a modern spin. Wexler chose the menu for a 1931 banquet to honor Albert Einstein at the Ambassador Hotel, featuring an item called “Chicken Saute Ambassador.” Wexler had to research how such a dish would have been prepared. Turns out, it was served in a white wine cream sauce.

In the exhibit there’s also a pile of blank menus on which visitors can describe their version of Los Angeles in a meal. Kun says he knew that given the scope of this project, it would be impossible to represent every story in the history of food in LA. These crowd-sourced menus are his effort to let people of all backgrounds leave their own mark on this story. And it shows that the food of LA continues to evolve, just like the city itself.

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