September 11, 2013

Soup to Nuts: Paper trail to Maine restaurant history

Perusing the Maine Historical Society's colorful collection of old menus makes for a tasty and edifying stroll down Memory Lane.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

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Menus in the collection of the Maine Historical Society in Portland trace the history of dining out in Maine going back to the 19th century.

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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A menu from The Gerald (circa 1900) in Brunswick features a photo of owner W.J. Bradbury.

Additional Photos Below


WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE Portland restaurant memory? What restaurant, or restaurant dish, do you miss the most? Write to me at, and I may share your story on our food blog, Maine a la Carte.

The Preble House, by the way, was torn down in 1923 to make room for the city's popular Time & Temperature building. You can no longer order Charlotte Russe a la Chantilly or Fancy Cake there, but the building will tell you when there's a snow parking ban so you can avoid getting your car towed.


If you had gone to dinner at the Samoset in Rockport on Sept. 2, 1917, your server would have handed you a menu with photos of men playing golf.

You would have started the evening with a consomme or a crab flake cocktail, which was apparently as popular as mock turtle soup (also on the Samoset menu) at the time.

Entrees included filet of sole a la Meniere, served with iced cucumbers and pommes Parisienne; boiled breast of capon with celery sauce; and stuffed squab with guava jelly.

For dessert, you would have had your choice of blueberry or pumpkin pie, macarons, tutti frutti  ice cream, fruits, cheeses, zephyrettes (a type of cracker) or graham wafers.


Someone had such a good time celebrating Independence Day at the Smith Hotel in Portland in 1900 that they saved their patriotic menu decorated with a flag, a drawing of an exploding firecracker, and a red, white and blue ribbon.

This menu illustrates a couple of preferences I noticed over and over again in menus of this time: Strange pairings of relishes, and lots of boiled meats and fish.

The meal started, for example, with a choice of mock turtle soup (again), served with radishes, or mulligatawney soup served with olives. The entrees included choices like leg of lamb and veal cutlets, but there was also boiled halibut with Hollandaise sauce, served with sliced cucumbers, lettuce, potato chips and tomatoes, and boiled ox tongue in piquant sauce, served with pickled beets and pickled onions.

A far cry from our standard Fourth of July hot dogs and hamburgers.


W.J. Bradbury, proprietor of The Gerald in Brunswick, was so proud of his restaurant that when it opened on June 4, 1900, he put his own photo on the menu.


This huge hotel in Old Orchard Beach must have had a classier clientele. On the menu for July 20, 1890, the name of the hotel is written in glitter – who knew they had glitter in 1890? –  and they served green turtle soup aux quenelles (a type of dumpling) instead of the mock turtle soup made with calf's head.

They saved the calf's head to braise and serve with "brain sauce." 


This lunch spot at 71 Oak St. in Portland was owned by an F.L. Elder; the cover of its menu featured a drawing of a waiter holding a tray.

There's no date on the menu, but the prices leave no doubt that it dates to the first part of the 20th century. Two pork chops could be had for 45 cents, and a slice of pie was a dime.

Customers could eat in or order take-out, and didn't have to worry about bad service if they followed these instructions printed at the bottom of the menu: "Kindly report any discourteous treatment on the  part of employees to management." 


This Hallowell hotel and restaurant caught my eye because of its interesting history.

The 70-room structure, originally known as Hallowell House, was built in 1832 to house legislators, and hosted the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1841, according to the Maine Historical Society, it became a “temperance house.” The proprietors posted a notice in the local paper that said its "incomparable meals" would "more than compensate for the absence of liquors."

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Additional Photos

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The menu from Elder’s Lunch at 71 Oak St. in Portland shows how the price of breakfast has changed over the years (bacon omelette, 35 cents, for example.)

Tim Greenway

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A special menu from The Preble House in Portland for an 1888 celebration organized by friends of Alger V. Currier in honor of the artist from Hallowell.

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The collection also includes menus from more recent history, like this one from the departed Victory Deli & Bake Shop on Monument Square.

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