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Trader Vic's, The Salt Cellar, Jordan's and more historic Arizona restaurants still alive in menus

It’s well known that Phoenix grew substantially in the decades following WWII as air-conditioning became affordable in homes, and development accelerated. Along with this growth was a flourish of pride in hospitality and fine dining choices.

Destinations such as Newton’s Prime Rib, Green Gables, and Monti’s La Casa Vieja were popular with both residents and tourists. These culinary options, as well as family-friendly spots, helped announce that Phoenix of the 1950s and 1960s was on par with other major cities. One artifact left behind from this golden era is the menus from these local dining establishments.

The Show’s Sativa Peterson visited Isabel Cazares, librarian at the Arizona Historical Society, where Valley menus from throughout the decades have been collected and talked about what we can learn from these menus.

Full interview

ISABEL CAZARES: I think they're really fascinating on a lot of different levels. First of all, the graphic choices as well as the types of food, different pricing as well is really a key to what type of food was available, how restaurants were pricing, and a general culture of dining out can kind of be in seen through the menus.

There are over 250 menus in the Arizona menu collections. And Cazares began by showing me a selection, some simply designed with clean lines and bright hues. Others crafted with velvet are bound with cord. Some themed and others fantasy-fueled.

CAZARES: It's a dark forest green. It has kind of a Polynesian style design. It's Trader Vic's, which some might know for the architectural style of the building. It was kind of a little bit of a unique stand out. There was that pull to Polynesian, Asian or island-type themed restaurants for a while. And this one is really an interesting mix because they've got Chinese food on there and barbecue and omelets. And so you can really see that it's kind of a theme, but I don't think that they were pulling exactly from a Polynesian culture there, but just perhaps just the design was appealing.

We've also got things like The Salt Cellar, which many people in the Tempe area might know. That one is just kind of a straight one page menu but rather large. Actually, a lot of these are oversized. It's got that salmon-esque color on it. And there's salmon crepes and seafood, but oysters and all of these delicacies really of the sea, I think is a trend that you see as you know, you're in the '70s and '80s and we're importing a lot more of our food from other places.

But, you know, you've got some, you know, some standards here that you might find still in the Valley, like a, a Jordan's Fine Mexican Food menu. But it's, it's got a nice black background with a kind of an adobe, Spanish revival building on the front, and it's Jordan's in red and then you open it and it's got just a splash of red, bright red in the Mexican dinners. You know, everybody gets hungry when they look at our menu collection.You've got, you know, beef tacos and toad and enchiladas for $3.55.

The color is very vibrant.

CAZARES: Oh, absolutely. I think the font choices really tell you a lot about the era that they're from. So, this one is just really a nice, heavily stylized font that, really attracts the eye. So the menus are really part of the experience still.

OK. A lot of these, you, you might have to guess, because they don't actually have their date on them.

Yeah, that's interesting, unlike like a newspaper or something else. These really don't have dates. You have to do a little detective work, I imagine to place what era.

CAZARES: You absolutely do. It's difficult to decipher. So that's why sometimes the price is your best clue.

OK, so what are, what are we looking at here?

CAZARES: Yeah, we have a wonderful Westward Ho menu and you can see the building very clearly, 1920s cars hanging out out front and awnings, people walking around and the building is in a wonderful kind of pen-lined sketch.

So it looks like we are celebrating the holiday season with dancing orchestras and different things on the menu, too.

They are using like royal squab and brown olivet potatoes, goose liver and all these extra special items, Avocado Supreme in Phoenix. And all these ingredients, I think we have to remember, might have taken a little bit longer to get there than they do today.

I imagine just the act of looking at these old menus can spur memories for people, prompting them to remember all kinds of things about the Valley from nearby businesses to special events.

CAZARES: Absolutely. They are pieces of memory for a lot of people. They'll come in and tell me about a restaurant. But then they'll say, oh, we always went there after the game or when we were going to this special, you know, amusement park or whatever they're thinking about it. It involves a story. So they're thinking about how that restaurant fit into their daily life or if it was a special occasion, why would they go, who might have been seen there? You know, so those stories can also help us pinpoint individuals in history.

But I also believe that a lot of people might come in for the data. What are we eating in the Valley? What is the pricing of that, that kind of data is very helpful for researchers because there is less less focus on it. But food history is just as important as other, other avenues of history for us. Knowing what we want to spend our money on leisurely or otherwise is important for kind of getting a cultural sense of the Valley at that time.

Do any local chefs visit to check out the menu collection?

CAZARES: You know, we are encouraging chefs to do that, We had some success in the recent years. This is really just a reminder that the chefs are inspiring people now to become chefs of their own. And keeping, you know, menus is going to to have those people hopefully come in and be inspired by those menus and continue looking towards the past while they're cooking for a future residents of Arizona. So I think there's definitely momentum for us to have more chefs come in and be inspired by this material.

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Sativa Peterson is a journalist, librarian and archivist.From 2017-2022 Peterson worked as the collection manager for the Arizona Newspaper Project and the Arizona Historical Digital Newspaper Project, special collections of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.Between 2017-2019 Peterson was the project director for a National Digital Newspaper Program grant awarded to the state of Arizona through a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Peterson helped digitize over 100,000 pages of historic newspaper content for the Chronicling America and Arizona Memory Project websites.Her work has appeared in local and national publications such as New Times, BUST and Modern Loss and she has hosted the workshop, “Time Travel Through Historic Newspapers,” at Valley bookstore Changing Hands.Peterson’s short personal documentary, “The Slow Escape,” originally released in 1998, is now on the Criterion Channel.Peterson’s first job in high school was at KINO 1230 AM in her hometown, Winslow, Arizona. Peterson worked afternoon and evening shifts spinning county music in the high desert.