CW Special Menu
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Menus, as lists of prepared foods, have been discovered dating back to the Song dynasty in China. In the larger cities of the time, merchants found a way to cater to busy customers who had little time or energy to prepare an evening meal. The variation in Chinese cuisine from different regions led caterers to create a list or menu for their patrons.
The word “menu”, like much of the terminology of cuisine, is French in origin. It ultimately derives from Latin “minutus”, something made small; in French, it came to be applied to a detailed list or résumé of any kind. The original menus that offered consumers choices were prepared on a small chalkboard, in French a carte; so foods chosen from a bill of fare are described as “à la carte”, “according to the board.”
The earliest European menus, several of which survive from 1751 onwards, appear to have been for the relatively intimate and informal soupers intimes (“intimate suppers”) given by King Louis XV of France at the Château de Choisy for between 31 and 36 guests. Several seem to have been placed on the table, listing four courses, each with several dishes, plus dessert.
During the second half of the 18th century, and especially after the French Revolution in 1789, they spread to restaurants. Before then, eating establishments or tables d’hôte served dishes chosen by the chef or proprietors. Customers ate what the house was serving that day, as in contemporary banquets or buffets, and meals were served from a common table. The establishment of restaurants and restaurant menus allowed customers to choose from a list of unseen dishes, which were produced to order according to the customer’s selection. A table d’hôte establishment charged its customers a fixed price; the menu allowed customers to spend as much or as little money as they chose.
Menus for private functions, pre-paid meals and the like do not have prices. In normal restaurants there are two types of menus without prices that were mostly used until the 1970s and 1980s: the “blind menu” and the “women’s menu”. These menus contained all of the same items as the regular menu, except that the prices were not listed. The “blind menu” was distributed to guests at business meals where the hosts did not want the diners to see the prices, or to any type of dinner where the host felt that having the prices not listed would make the guests feel more comfortable ordering.
Until the early 1980s, some high-end restaurants had two menus divided by gender: a regular menu with the prices listed for men and a second menu for women, which did not have the prices listed (it was called the “ladies’ menu”), so that the female diner would not know the prices of the items. In 1980, Kathleen Bick took a male business partner out to dinner at L’Orangerie in West Hollywood; after Bick got a women’s menu without prices and her guest got the menu with prices, Bick hired lawyer Gloria Allred to file a discrimination lawsuit, on the grounds that the women’s menu went against the California Civil Rights Act.  Bick stated that getting a women’s menu without prices left her feeling “humiliated and incensed”. The owners of the restaurant defended the practice, saying it was done as a courtesy, like the way men would stand up when a woman enters the room. Even though the lawsuit was dropped, the restaurant ended its gender-based menu policy. While price-less menus for women generally disappeared after the 1980s, in 2010, Tracey MacLeod reported that Le Gavroche in London (UK) still had a price-less women’s menu for women who eat at tables booked by men, with tables booked by women getting a regular menu for the woman.
As early as the mid-20th century, some restaurants have relied on “menu specialists” to design and print their menus. Prior to the emergence of digital printing, these niche printing companies printed full-color menus on offset presses. The economics of full-color offset made it impractical to print short press runs. The solution was to print a “menu shell” with everything but the prices. The prices would later be printed on a less costly black-only press. In a typical order, the printer might produce 600 menu shells, then finish and laminate 150 menus with prices. When the restaurant needed to reorder, the printer would add prices and laminate some of the remaining shells.
With the advent of digital presses, it became practical in the 1990s to print full-color menus affordably in short press runs, sometimes as few as 25 menus. Because of limits on sheet size, larger laminated menus were impractical for single-location independent restaurants to produce press runs of as few as 300 menus, but some restaurants may want to place far fewer menus into service. Some menu printers continue to use shells. The disadvantage for the restaurant is that it is unable to update anything but prices without creating a new shell.
During the economic crisis in the 1970s, many restaurants found it costly to reprint th