L.A. Library Foundation Launches “To Live and Dine in L.A.” Menu Project

The multi-platform exhibit will highlight Los Angeles restaurant culture using a historic collection of over 9,000 menus

Mark your calendars: 2015 is destined to be The Year of the Menu.

The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Public Library, has announced a multiplatform project entitled “To Live and Dine in L.A.,” a broad look at the city’s restaurant culture, informed by a special collection of restaurant menus mined from the library’s vaults. The project will launch with the publication of the first-ever, in-depth Los Angeles restaurant menu book, spearheaded by USC Professor Josh Kun (who also acts as editor and curator), and will be followed up by a series of public programs and a main exhibition at the Central Library.

Last year Kun directed a sheet-music project for the Library Foundation called “Songs in the Key of L.A.” This time around, Kun and a group of students spent a year with librarians digging through a 9,000 piece collection of historic menus, formulating a broad view of eating habits, food politics, and trends of Angeleno diners over the past century.

Menus seem straightforward, says Kun. In their most utilitarian purpose, they convey choices available to a diner to eat or purchase. Menus are also a form of self-expression by a chef. “These are the basics,” says Kun. But for someone like him, menus also represent historical documents offering windows into the past.

“I tend to look at cultural texts in larger frames,” says Kun. “Menus are urban texts which give us a glimpse into a specific time and place by revealing cultural identity, class conflict, race, and gender disparities. Some of the menus we came across are food documents of privilege and speak to issues of food awareness and inequality. It is those kinds of histories that are buried within the menu.”

For the book, Kun recruited a swath of the city’s culinary icons to contribute: Roy Choi, Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of La Casita Meixcana, Cynthia Hawkins of Hawkins House of Burgers, Susan Feniger of Border Grill, Nancy Silverton of Mozza, Sarintip Singsanong of Jitlada, and Micah Wexler of Wexler’s Deli, among others.

“When I started this project, the first person I contacted was Roy,” says Kun. “I was a fan of his social agenda and the raw, unpretentious way he talks about food and community. If you’ve ever been to POT, you’ll know that Roy knows the power of a menu.”

In addition to this all-star line-up, the book and exhibition will highlight rare first edition menus, templates, and menu printing materials recently donated to the Los Angeles Public Library from The Lord Menu Company, which is responsible for designing and printing iconic menus for Bob’s Big Boy and The Brown Derby. According the Kun, “the project isn’t about nostalgia, or foodie-ism, or even chef celebrity; it’s about understanding key social issues layered in the menus.”

To explore the menu collection and other special collections, visit lapl.org. And in the coming weeks, visit toliveanddinela.com for more informationa bout the “To Live and Dine in L.A.” project.