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Menu exhibition serves up a slice of Adelaide’s social history

Menus from some of Adelaide’s most iconic restaurants ­– including Mistress Augustine’s, Nediz Tu, The Magic Flute and Pheasant Farm – form part of a new Sweet and Savoury exhibition at the State Library.

Apr 14, 2023, updated Apr 21, 2023
This image of diners at Ceylon Hut restaurant in Bank Street is on display in the State Library's 'Sweet and Savoury' exhibition. Photo: SLSA

This image of diners at Ceylon Hut restaurant in Bank Street is on display in the State Library's 'Sweet and Savoury' exhibition. Photo: SLSA

Sweet and Savoury: menus from the collections of the State Library is a step back in time, with menus and other culinary memorabilia collected from Adelaide cafes and restaurants across the decades. The exhibition showcases some of South Australia’s most famous food destinations, as well as reflecting the changing food trends and social history of the times.

Photo: SLSA

The earliest menu is from a dinner held at Government House in 1867 to mark the arrival of Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria. On his first night in the colony, Prince Alfred was guest of honour at a dinner party where the sumptuous meal included mulligatawny soup, “kromeskys aux heutres” (oysters rolled in thin shavings of bacon, dipped in batter and fried in hot lard), “timbals maccaroni” and Albert pudding (named in honour of Alfred’s father).

Sweet and Savoury, curated by State Library senior conservator Peter Zajicek and exhibitions curator Mark Gilbert, includes  70 exhibits from the library’s collection of thousands of menus which have been donated by members of the public or collected by library staff.

“In library language we call this ‘ephemera’, which is basically anything that is not books or records or archives – things like menus, theatre programs, wine labels, all that sort of thing that are almost throwaway items but people did keep them and we still collect menus right up until today,” Gilbert says.

Some of the more unique items include a menu written on a cleaver for the Cork and Cleaver restaurant in Glenunga, which opened in 1978 and ran for 43 years, and a menu written for radio station 5DN’s annual Christmas party held at the Highway Inn in 1962, where the names of dishes have been changed to reflect names of radio personalities of the day.

Installation view: Sweet and Savoury: menus from the collections of the State Library.

“The menus also reflect the changes in design styles over the periods as well,” Gilbert says. “For example, the 5DN menu from 1962 shows the mid-century style, [while] earlier ones are in an ornate Victoriana design. Some menus were purely functional – an expression of the times.

“The menus that come from the 1970s and ’80s is really when the restaurant industry changed in South Australia. There were lots of changes to the licensing laws, so it meant that the world of fine dining changed and opened right up, so we were introduced to a lot of new flavours and new styles of cooking.

Don Dunstan’s Cookbook. Photo: SLSA

An illustration from Mistress Augustine’s 1986 Bastille Day menu. Photo: SLSA

“I think people look back not just at the changes to restaurant eating but the changes socially. Restaurants and hotels could stay open later, the alcohol laws were loosened up, so it was a period of change.”

Key to some of these social reforms in the 1970s was then-South Australian Premier Don Dunstan, whose cookbook, aptly named Don Dunstan’s Cookbook, forms part of the exhibition and includes Indian and Malay dishes. Dunstan was instrumental in promoting South Australia’s food and wine industries and introducing the “revolutionary” idea of al fresco dining. He also opened his own restaurant, Don’s Table, in 1994.

Other famous names represented in the exhibition include La Trattoria, Possums, one of the Ellis chain of cafés, the Arcadia – which ran through the 1930 and ’40s and offered double-cut fritz rolls, beef tea and toast (all in shillings and pence) – Bangkok Restaurant, Jasmin Indian Restaurant, and Neddy’s, which opened in 1975.

Double-cut tongue roll, anyone? A menu from Arcadia Cafe.

One of Gilbert’s favourite items is a restaurant review written by a very unhappy diner at Ernest’s Restaurant, which opened March 1961. Ernest’s was in the mid-century building at the River Torrens weir, now occupied by Red Ochre Grill.

“It’s not so much the menu for this restaurant, but the handwritten review of the 1962 Christmas menu by an anonymous diner, stapled to the menu when it was donated to us,” Gilbert says. “Ernest’s was known for its fine dining, however this patron was clearly not impressed!”

The review includes: “…For the price per head of three pounds 10 shillings it was the worst meal we’ve ever had with the exception of the Hotel Elizabeth Christmas 1961. Caviar was served with cold toast triangles unbuttered with a side dish of crumbed cream cheese. Iced consommé had jellied stock floating in warm thin soup skimmed from alleged minestrone. Xmas pudding was cold and soggy – large base of vanilla ice cream topped with whipped butter coloured cream, garnished with the smallest strawberries available.”

The Maple Leaf Café in Rundle Street. Photo: SLSA

Gilbert says the menus in Sweet and Savoury show the changes in eating habits over the years.

“A lot of the earlier menus were very meat-heavy but that has changed in recent times, with a much greater focus on vegetables and other cuisine styles. In later menus we can see the introduction of Australian native ingredients.”

Photographs form part of the exhibition, including pictures of Decca’s in Melbourne Street, taken in 1974, as well as the Maple Leaf Café in Rundle Street and Ceylon Hut in Bank Street.

Two short films are also on show: A Taste of Adelaide, a tourism promotion showcasing Adelaide in the 1970s, and Hotel Elizabeth, which depicts diners at the northern suburbs hotel in the 1950s and ’60s.

Sweet and Savoury: menus from the collections of the State Library is showing until the end of June. It includes activities for children to get involved, such as a scavenger hunt and an opportunity to “design your ultimate party menu”.

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