[Alyson Kuhn] Stephen Exel is a food writer and editor, and a contributing editor to Traditional Home magazine. I met him in June while he was on assignment in the Napa Valley. After he asked our server at Bottega whether he could keep the menu, it wasn’t long before we started comparing restaurant swag stories.
Le Grand Hotel, Brussels: Menu for Jan. 12, 1899
What do you do with the menus you keep?
Some I frame and hang in my kitchen. Others I file. I’ll tell you about one of the earliest menus I actually collected myself. When I was 14 or 15, I went to Paris with the French Club from my school — we also toured the French countryside. I was the only boy, and there were probably 25 girls. I had worked as an usher in a movie theater to help pay for the trip. Many of the meals were included, but we also received a per diem for when we ate in cafés or bistros on our own. My friend Twinky and I saved most of our per diem money by living on croque monsieurs — those delicious ham and cheese sandwiches — because we wanted to go to Maxim’s. On our last night in Paris we presented ourselves at the restaurant, all dressed up. I’m sure Twinky was wearing a minidress, probably pink, and I was in a suit and tie.
Wait a second. Had you made a reservation?
No, we hadn’t. We asked for a table for two, and I’m guessing that we tried to do this in French.The maître d’ discreetly inquired whether we knew what things cost, and I told him how many francs we had. We ordered, and somehow the bill was magically in line with our savings. I brought the menu home and eventually had it framed.
Kurhaus, Bad Nauheim, Germany: Menu for Sept. 2, 1902
Can you send me a photo of it?
Unfortunately not. It hasn’t resurfaced after my last move, which was several years ago. But I remember it so vividly, I’ll describe it for you: The front and back covers created a continuous illustration, clearly intended to evoke the Art Nouveau style. It was slightly cartoonish, and I recall a profile of a woman in a period dress, with a red hat, very Toulouse-Lautrec-like. The gentlemen were in evening dress. The Maxim’s logo, a waiter burdened down with top hats and walking sticks, was on the inside, but I had the cover side framed.
Hotel des Indes: Menu for Nov. 26, 1892
Was that the first menu you kept?
It might have been the first one that I asked to keep, but it wouldn’t have been the first one kept for me. My mother was British, and she arrived in America on the SS United States as a young woman. She and my father sailed back to England on the same ship on their honeymoon, and when I was 3, I traveled to England on that ship, with my mother. She saved the menus, and she kept two boxes of memorabilia from her crossings. I have always been intrigued by the contents of those boxes. I remember the tiny engraved cards inviting her to the Captain’s Table for dinner.
Hotel des Indes, The Hague, Netherlands: Menu for July 27
And what about the menus?
Everything had a very stylized look, and even as a little boy I thought they were cool, because they had the same elegant graphic of the ship’s emblem. Perhaps subconsciously they predestined me to collect restaurant menus. My mother also kept the pair of passenger lists from our trip together. Going over I was Master Stephen Exel, and coming home I was Stephen Exel, Esq.
Exel, a Chicago native, celebrated many family occasions at the city’s famous Pump Room.
How great! And are you interested in menus from meals that you haven’t actually eaten yourself?
I am, both for the graphics and for the cuisine. Years ago, I found half a dozen little menu cards in a thrift shop or antique store — I don’t exactly remember where, but I loved them and framed them for my kitchen. They are all from hotels, handwritten just for a single day, on beautiful stock. There’s this allure to them, being from hotels where people would “stop” — that wonderful old expression. They truly are a glimpse, a remnant really, of a kind of civilized living that is gone. That’s not to say that there isn’t civilized living today, but there were different formalities back then.
Exel reminisces, “There was always someone famous seated in Booth 1. The entry was covered with framed photos of movie and Broadway stars — all dining at the Pump Room. It had this magical quality to it.”
And what about the menu items themselves?
I have on occasion tried to figure out what all the dishes were. For some, I couldn’t find any information but many are classics from the French repertoire, still served today. It would be so fun to serve one of these menus on the date for which it was created — if you could actually recreate everything from, say, September 2nd, 1902.
Will you be doing anything in honor of Bastille Day?
[Slight pause] Here is what I’m going to do: I’m going to buy a bottle of rosé brut, a baguette, some fabulous creamy Reblochon and some fresh blackberries, which I’m going to smash into my cheese, and I’ll sing the Marseillaise!
Stephen Exel gave me the choice of saying that he currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa (where Traditional Home is headquartered), or in a writer’s romantic garret in Montmartre, “the Parisian equivalent of where Gregory Peck lived in Roman Holiday … which is not true, but a guy can dream.” Meanwhile, Exel can’t wait to visit the Pump Room’s latest incarnation, completely redesigned by Ian Schrager.
All Photos: © 2012 StudioAlex