Whether you are scanning a chalkboard on the side of a food truck or paging through an elaborate bill of fare at an elegant sit-down restaurant, you probably read a menu simply to figure out what you want to eat. But curator Josh Kun and a group of his students from USC, where he is a professor in the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, have been studying the 9,000-piece menu collection of the Los Angeles Public Library for another reason: to understand the history of Los Angeles through popular cuisines, food prices, restaurant trends, and more. Now this intriguing research is the subject of a new book and an exhibition called To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, which is on display at the Central Library through November 13, 2015.
Many things contributed to making Los Angeles a modern city in the global spotlight. But while factors like good weather (especially on New Year’s Day during the nationally broadcasted Rose Parade) and the prodigious output of Hollywood are often cited, this exhibition considers the impact of food. As the hometown of iconic dishes including hot dogs on sticks, Kogi tacos, designer pizza, fast-food burgers, and the Cobb salad, Los Angeles has long influenced how America eats.
As you enter the Getty Gallery in the majestic downtown Central Library, you might think you’ve made a wrong turn and stumbled into the café! That’s because the exhibition To Live and Dine in L.A. is dominated by and organized around a bright green dining table, which morphs as you move around it from the setting of a lavish banquet dinner—complete with stylish lighting—to the site of a humble lunch served on a Lazy Susan. In addition, colorful photomurals on the surrounding walls feature archival photographs from the Library’s collection that highlight different aspects of dining history and restaurant labor in Los Angeles.
Visitors are encouraged to pull up a chair at the table, where each place is set with one of the historic menus from the collection. We first perched in front of a banquet menu from a fancy dinner at the Jonathan Club in 1906, and then moved on to giggle and wonder about the “stuffed tomato surprise” on a 1913 menu from the Nat Goodwin Café on the Crystal Pier in Santa Monica.
According to the exhibition, menus began appearing in Los Angeles in the 1850s, and the city’s major growth spurts and movements—including the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, early booster tourism, car culture, the Great Depression, World War II, social and political upheavals of the 1960s, and economic disparities of the 1980s—can be tracked via the menus of the time. The menus also chart the evolution of graphic design, as well, and it’s fascinating to see the various styles of logos, typography, and illustrations, from slick to folksy.
The exhibition explores the phenomena of cafeterias like the famous Clifton’s (rumored to be re-opening at its historic downtown locale in the not-too-distant future), which epitomized the democratization of dining, and also global cuisine eateries, theme restaurants (including the famous Brown Derby, shaped like a hat, and Tail o’ the Pup, shaped like a hot dog), and lunch counters. In addition, contemporary artists Karla Diaz and Haruko Tanaka and artist collective Fallen Fruit have contributed installations that consider important issues relating to food justice in Los Angeles. An interactive section invites visitors to share their ideal L.A. menu, and children might especially enjoy filling in the blank menus provided with their favorite appetizers, main dishes, sides, desserts, and drinks. There is also a menu collection box on-site, in case you want to contribute any from your personal cache to the Library’s collection.
The Library and the Library Foundation are further examining the changing role of food in L.A. and helping to raise awareness about food access and food insecurity with numerous related programs—from cooking demonstrations to story times—at branches of the Los Angeles Public Library. Also, on Wednesday, July 8 @ 7:30pm at the wonderful Skylight Books in Los Feliz (1818 N Vermont Ave. Los Angeles 90027) Kun will be joined by noted chef Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ fame for a discussion and book signing.
The Central Library itself, with design influences that allude to ancient Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, and various Islamic civilizations, as well as to Spanish Colonial and other revival styles, is an architectural gem and one of the treasures of L.A.’s historic downtown. Comprised of the original 1926 library now called the Goodhue Building and a 1993 addition named for former mayor Tom Bradley, the library has been designated a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Free docent tours of the building and its art are offered daily (Monday–Friday 12:30 pm, Saturday 11 am and 2 pm, Sunday 2 pm), and on Saturday there is also a 12:30 pm tour of the lovely Maguire Gardens that surround the library.
If you don’t opt for a formal tour, don’t depart without at least experiencing the Library’s gorgeous rotunda, which you can view by heading towards the center of the building as you exit the exhibition. The ceiling centers on a magnificent bronze chandelier that includes the signs of the zodiac, created by Lee Lawrie, who designed most of the Goodhue Building’s metalwork. Around the rotunda’s upper walls is a series of mural painted by Dean Cornwell featuring four, forty-feet-wide panels that depict scenes from California history: the Era of Discovery, the Building of the Missions, Founding of the Pueblo of Los Angeles and the Americanization of California.
From the rotunda, you can walk directly into what is today the Children’s Department. It is the only reading room that still looks much as it did during the 1920’s and features an elaborate ceiling by Julian Garnsey, towering table lamps that are reproductions of the originals by Lawrie, and a set of murals representing subjects from California history by Albert Herter.
The Central Library is open Monday–Thursday, 10 am–8 pm; Friday and Saturday 9:30 am–5:30 pm; and Sunday 1–5 pm. Admission is free. Parking info (LINK: http://www.lapl.org/branches/central-library/parking)
The Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library
Central Library 630 W. 5th Street Los Angeles CA 90071
Written by Stacey Ravel Abarbanel