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.

But the joke was on me.

The menu was in pristine condition, but it was a "joke menu." Funny, occasionally taking a sharp turn into political incorrectness. (One item in particular treads into such sensitive territory, I don't dare reprint it here.)

For appetizers, the menu lists "Virgin Mermaid on Halfshell" and "Breast of Boiled Peasant, minus de bra." Entrees include "French Fried French (our fry cook before his foot slipped), large serving 15 cents."

On the back of the menu is an illustration of cans on a shelf, labeled "Boone's Delicacies." They include "Boone's Skate Fish Lips (Pouted)," "Roast Breast of Lion" and "Boone's Dehydrated Sebago Water (just add water)."

There are specials, too, such as "Boone's Boiled Cod Bones Pickled in Brandy. Frankly, this is lousy, but the brandy is delicious."


This Portland hotel has been in the news lately because it's undergoing a $50 million renovation.

The new owners are going with a more modern look, but if they wanted to turn to the past for inspiration, all they'd have to do is flip the calendar back to 1939, when the hotel had an Egyptian Dining Room.

There are no photos of the dining room on the Jan. 13, 1939 menu, but there is a description of the space:

"This dining room is believed to be the first, if not the only public dining room of its type in America –  the figures represented as being carved in stone after the ancient Egyptian manner. It represents the open air court of Egyptian royalty, in the period of King Pepi II. The mural decorating is in true Egyptian, faithful in detail even to the hieroglyphics, and hieratic numerals of the clock."

Diners weren't, however, going to eat like an Egyptian. The restaurant served a table d'hote dinner, a type of prix fixe dinner in which "the price of the entree is the price of the complete meal."

The entrees included stuffed veal cutlet ($1), banana scallops ($1), lobster thermidor in shell ($1.35) and baked halibut Manhattan ($1). All of the entrees came with an orange and shredded cocoanut (sic) cup, tomato juice cocktail, fish chowder, watermelon pickles, mushroom bouillon, choice of dessert and tea, coffee, milk or buttermilk.

Banana scallops, by the way, don't really contain scallops. It's a retro (for us) recipe of coated, fried bananas that were often served like a vegetable.

Tomato juice cocktails and watermelon pickles are two items that pop up repeatedly on the old Maine menus. 


On Oct. 12, 1888, friends of Alger V. Currier held a dinner in his honor at The Preble House, a grand hotel at the corner of Congress and Preble streets in Portland.

Charles Dickens had stayed at The Preble House in 1868 and found the food "bad and disgusting," according to a 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram account of his visit. Perhaps the food improved over the next 20 years, just in time for Currier's dinner.

Currier was an artist from Hallowell who studied painting in Paris. The menu for his 1888 dinner, printed on thick, slightly stained paper, doesn't mention if the event marked a special occasion, but it was important enough that someone drew a seating chart on the back.

The evening began with mock turtle soup, a dish commonly found on the old menus. Mock turtle soup skipped actual turtle meat, thank goodness, because it was too expensive. The chef used cheaper ingredients (a calf's head, organ meats, etc.) instead, to impart a similar flavor.

Also on the extensive menu: fried smelts served with tartar sauce and French fried potatoes, breaded lamb chops with tomato sauce, oyster patties, apricot fritters with wine sauce, roast chicken with giblet sauce, tenderloin of beef and mushrooms, Roman punch (commonly used back then as a palate cleanser), roast partridge with game sauce and Saratoga potatoes, and on and on until the meal is finished with coffee and cigars.

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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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