History Colorado's menu collection unearths a taste of the culinary past

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What did your grandparents eat when they stopped for a bite on the road? What kind of Colorado cuisine was served to tourists fresh from Stapleton Airport? And what did Playboy Bunnies graze on in-between dances? At 11 a.m. today at the History Colorado Center, Library Director Laura Ruttum Senturia will crack open the museum's archives of historic menus from across the Front Range.

From vintage diners to lavish '60s eateries worthy of Don Draper, the restaurants represented in the collection provide a snapshot frozen in time of the days before eating out became a way of life for Coloradans. "I'll have images of about fifty menus, and we'll be talking about the different themes you can see of restaurant culture in Colorado over the twentieth century...and where that leaves us today," Ruttum Senturia says.

See also: Best Museum Shop Denver 2013 - History Colorado Center

Unlike the Denver Public Library's extensive menu collection, which dates back to the late 1800s, History Colorado's collection focuses on the mid-to-late twentieth century, a time when car culture, the rise of women in the workforce, and shifting culinary tastes gradually revolutionized the way we look at dining out. "One of the things that was really interesting for me was thinking about the change that happened in restaurant behavior right before our lifetime," Ruttum Senturia says. "Eating out at a restaurant was something that you did maybe a couple of times a year. It was a unique experience...so if you were going out, it was for a celebration." The oldest menu in the current collection dates to 1934 and Tijuana's infamous Agua Caliente racetrack, which documents what the day's Hollywood stars wined and dined on at the track. Another gem is a Googie-style bill of fare from the now-defunct Denver Drumstick chain, which offered diners a traveler's map of Denver along with their meal of gizzards and fries -- all for only 59 cents. This reminds Ruttum Senturia of the now-classic Mad Men scene in which Don and Betty Draper have a teeth-clenching confrontation in a '60s-tastic Howard Johnson's. "You could put this menu in their hands and it would look authentic," she says. The early landscape of Denver dining seems pretty depressing in some of these menus. But others are so fun and outlandish, they make you want to travel back in time for a dinner reservation. "A lot of restaurants were developing their marketing hook," she explains. "You know, 'We are a Swiss restaurant, and when you come in it'll look like a Swiss village' -- but they're still serving burgers and fries." Another artifact of Denver's culinary past is a menu from the long-gone Playboy Club, which occupied the top of what's now the Warwick Hotel.. Aspiring Hugh Hefners could take their ladyfriends or business partners for a dinner of steak kabobs ($1.50) and a taste of cosmopolitan living in a city not yet known for its urbanity. "Diners now are a lot more sophisticated compared to decades ago, as far as our level of comfort and familiarity with cuisines that might not be our native cuisines," says Ruttum Senturia.

For more information on this tantalizing taste of history, go to the History Colorado website.

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