The new romance I’m working on now has a scene in an elegant hotel dining room, which led me to research what a restaurant like that would really serve. My time period is later than most of what we discuss here (1899), but once I found a site with images of real Nineteenth Century menus, I couldn’t help but look at all the oldies.
To my surprise every one of these old menus listed many items even a picky, plain food person like me would be happy to order.
- Roast Prime Beef, Dish Gravy; Mashed Potatoes; Green Peas; Blackberry Pie; Canadian and Edam Cheese (Alamo Hotel, Colorado Springs, April 14, 1895)
- Baked Salmon au Vin Blanc; Shrimp Salad (Albert Café, Denver, November 16, 1891)
- Porterhouse Steak; Pork Chops; Eggs done in many ways (Bazaar Dinning [sic] Room, Denver, probably circa 1892)
- Ox Heart with Jelly (Alert Restaurant, Denver, probably circa 1894)
- Calves Brains Scrambled with Eggs (Boston Bakery and Lunch Room, Denver, probably circa 1892)
- Boiled Tongue (Alamo Hotel, Colorado Springs, April 14, 1895)
The fact oyster soup, salmon, and halibut were served in Colorado in those days was another surprise. How fresh could ocean fish be so far from the sea back then? By 1899 shipping on ice and some primitive refrigeration was available, but still.... In my memory many Coloradans didn’t consider ordering ocean fish in restaurants here a good idea even in the 60's and 70's.
Other things that tickled me were mentions of deposits and extra charges for dishes taken out (or rules forbidding takeout entirely). No Styrofoam to pack things in back then. They worried about whether dishes would be returned. One menu mentions an extra charge for two people who ordered a single meal and shared.
All in all this research went as it almost always does—I needed a small amount of information for one scene in an entire novel, spent a short time finding out what I needed to know and a long time checking out things that caught my interest.