When was the last time you moseyed up to a buffet line and looked a 3-foot-tall swan ice sculpture in the face? Or sipped a Dr. Funk cocktail for “instant health”? Or better yet, opened your menu to see a topless showgirl riding a tiger?
The days of peach melba and classic gourmet rooms are long gone, replaced by upscale burger joints, celebrity chefs and craft cocktails made with small-batch liquors and muddled herbs. But Las Vegas’ restaurant history lives on in an unexpected place: the UNLV Library, where vintage menus channel our culinary past.
In 1970, UNLV Libraries purchased the Bohn-Bettoni collection—approximately 2,000 European, Canadian and American menus dating from 1870 to 1930—which led Special Collections to obtain 5,000 physical menus from noted restaurateurs, food critics and writers, including Muriel Stevens, the Las Vegas Sun’s former food editor.
From those, 1,500 were selected for the digital collection “Menus: The Art of Dining,” including over 300 from Las Vegas restaurants, visible at digital.library.unlv.edu/collections/menus.
“Some of our gems are those representing well-known restaurants in the great hotels of Las Vegas that vanished years ago when their respective hotels were imploded or closed,” says Su Kim Chung, head of UNLV Special Collections public services.
Thanks to El Rancho Vegas, the first Strip property in 1941, the Vegas buffet was born. Known for 24/7 service, affordability and piles of provisions, the “chuck wagon” was devised to lure patrons through the doors in hopes that their wagers outweighed what was shoveled into their stomachs. Replete with rope designs and Western-style font, the Buckaroo Buffet’s advertisements were quite kitschy: For the “double-barreled value” of a dollar, cowpokes could “lasso a fresh crisp salad or hogtie a tantalizing selection of cold cuts.”
Vintage menus were designed to make an impression—advertising the Lido de Paris’ premiere performance at Stardust’s Cafe Continental or decked with silver tassels and embossed animal proteins at the Tropicana’s Le Gourmet Room—and snagging menus as commemorative keepsakes was even encouraged by some Strip showrooms. The Desert Inn’s Painted Desert Room affixed postcards to the back covers of its menus.
Few Strip restaurants listed children’s menus, but those that did offered pint-sized portions of regular entrées. For 85 cents, the Last Frontier Village menu offered a Davy Crockett plate with roast beef, mashed potatoes, vegetables and milk. The Thunderbird served a similar deal, plus Heinz strained baby food like beef liver sausage for 25 cents.
Gourmet ruled in the swanky ’60s, with menus using vivid imagery and language to emphasize an upscale experience. At the Dunes’ Dome of the Sea, a minimal menu of cool-toned fish and undulating seaweed called for “submitting to the pleasures of the nautical kingdom,” while the Bacchanal Room at Caesars Palace described itself as a resplendent arena of gustatory delights. For three hours, guests could brush up on their Latin by ordering “delectus de iuribus nostris” (“tureens of delectable soups”) or “embolia canora, grata auribus” (“a refreshing salad for your pleasure”) while toga-clad waitresses served sauvignon from bota bags. Former mayor Oscar Goodman remembers the way these magnificently coiffed women would “rub your neck and shoulders and the way they would take a grape off the table, peel it and throw it down your gullet.”
That experience, of course, is nowhere to be found on today’s Strip. “It’s a lost art, knowing how to debone Dover sole, flambé bananas Foster and make a Caesar salad from scratch,” says Jose Martel, who has spent 31 years at Michael’s, progressing from waiter to maître d’ at a classic restaurant that began at Barbary Coast and now lives at South Point.
But the lost swagger and silliness of classic Vegas restaurants still shines through their menus, relics that provide a deeper understanding of our culinary past and the opportunity to revisit cherished memories. Maybe someday, visitors to Vegas will look at today’s menus and feel the same nostalgia and awe.
Yesterday’s restaurants today
These throwback spots are long gone, but their legacies live on with updated versions:
• Garden Room at Sands —> a three-meal coffee shop with a vast menu, something for everyone —> Grand Lux Cafe at Venetian/Palazzo
• Painted Desert Room at Desert Inn —> a steak and seafood-centric supper club for before you catch a show —> Botero at Encore
• Caravan Room at Sahara —> breakfast specials and comfort food favorites around the clock —> Griddle Cafe at SLS
• Dome of the Sea at Dunes —> superb seafood in a regal dining room —> Michael Mina at Bellagio –Brock Radke