Remember the feeling of sipping on something soothing while perusing a menu of comforting cooking? These simple, tangible acts of dining out have been drastically impacted throughout the world, due to the adversities brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The restaurant industry has had to collectively abandon its established norms and find new and inventive ways of doing business. One important and immediate pivot is the adoption of QR codes, allowing diners to access menus on their smartphones. It’s a logical, easy solution to a tactile element of service, which today is exactly what puts us as risk.
As we inspectors spent months working from home, watching as the world embraced this evolution in restaurant operations, a welcome diversion was provided by reflecting on the pleasures of meals past, some of which have been preserved for posterity by way of a keepsake carte. We took a nostalgic tour of the troves of physical menus in our collections with a newfound sense of respect for the medium as a form of expression, a piece of art and a fitting prelude to the delightful meals that were to follow.
Here are some of the more memorable menus that remain dear to our hearts:
Casa Vissani (Umbria, Italy)One of the very first restaurants I visited during my Inspector training was Casa Vissani, tucked into a rural stretch, between Orvieto and Todi in Umbria. It was dark and the air was sweet; the gates opened and I drove towards the large restaurant, where I was welcomed by an elaborately dressed valet. The stunning dining room featured art everywhere, a roaring fireplace, luxurious linens and boxes filled with dainty offerings. I still recall being awestruck when the bound, multi-page menu was presented to me, and ran my fingers over each handwritten line that described the nightly items. The first dish listed—Caviale Beluga imperiale con mantecato di broccoletti al pepperoncino—remains a prized memory even today.
Atera (NY)With all the avant-garde and envelope-pushing dishes that I have experienced at Atera, the menu that strikes a chord is the “Recipes from our Family Volume 1.” The pamphlet allowed for a peek behind that mysterious veil at this very talented extended culinary family, where Chef Ronny Emborg introduced all the “kitchen soldiers” and their multi-culturalism. It’s particularly heartwarming when a chef at the height of his career steps aside to give credit to the entire brigade.
La Grenouille (NY)La Grenouille à 50 ans—a menu for the ages! For me visiting this glamor-filled dining room during her 50th anniversary added a layer of culinary advancement that was unparalleled. Many restaurants come and go, others perpetually evolve, but this grande dame continues to stand the test of time as a sanctuary of classic French cuisine.
Sixteen (Chicago)Chef Thomas Lentz created not only intricate and unforgettable meals, but he did this through a series of menus that portrayed a symphonic world filled with transporting descriptions. Sitting in the elegant dining room with Chicago’s skyline as a backdrop, one particularly memorable menu heading was “Dawn Breaking”—a poem penned on vellum paper and accompanied by a carte etched with snowflakes. Each dish was a bridge to a particular stanza. For instance, the “stillness of ice” course with fennel, oyster and iced Sturgeon caviar was a perfect celebration of winter, of the cold, of hard work and of a land far away.
The Restaurant at Meadowood (Napa, CA)When a fire ripped through Napa Valley and reduced Christopher Kostow’s three-Michelin-star restaurant to charred rubble, I pulled out my menu from 2018. A heavy black envelope closed with a wax seal held a near-transparent sheet of paper printed with the day’s offerings. The night’s dinner came rushing back to me. I thought of the smoked avocado—its center filled with foie gras and black truffles. I marveled at the cheese that had been with me all night, hidden and kept warm inside the torso of a flickering candle at the table. I recalled the oversized pine cone filled with chocolate. This wasn’t just dinner; it was an immersion, a celebration of California and a thrilling display of culinary craft. The envelope included a quote from naturalist and explorer, John Muir: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, CA)Poetry is everything at Dominique Crenn’s vision of a restaurant. It’s what is inscribed on a slab fixed high up on the wall. It was also the only menu we had on a chilly February night, with no listed ingredients or preparations—just nods and allusions to what might be. Is this geoduck with uni the “most adored gift from Neptune?” What could “Beneath the bluffs an armored gent listens” be? Prawns? On the way out, the host handed us a neatly folded envelope that contained the night’s poem etched on, what felt like, tree bark, and with it, a beautiful floral print. This is a menu I will always cherish—a reminder of Chef Crenn’s artistry.
Atomix (NY)Many norms are broken or delightfully ignored when it comes to the menu at Atomix. Rather than a single sheet hinting at the splendor and splurges that are to follow, guests are instead presented a “card” as a delightful tease, before the arrival of each dish. One side details the individual components of the corresponding dish, a stark shift from current trends where one word is often used to describe a highly complex plate. On the other side is art. Since the stylistic work on the plate is fleeting, the clever minds in this kitchen create a memento to go with each course.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Westchester, NY)A menu should serve as a portal into the mind of a chef. Its role can be whimsical, eclectic, persuasive or elegant. This particular inscription presented with the captain's ticket at the end of the meal was a precious sendoff. The night was warm and buzzing with cicadas; the carte read like a summer rhapsody, from the cool tomatoes “on the vine” to an enchanting English pea burger and breads as unique as the setting itself.
This article first appeared on MICHELIN Guide Global. Click here to see the original story.