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"To Live and Dine in L.A." Plumbs the Depths of L.A.'s Rich Restaurant History

The library exhibit, which features hundreds of old menus and photographs, can be seen until November.

Lucas Peterson

The long and glorious history of Los Angeles evokes images of oil; the Southern Pacific Railroad; Hollywood; aqueducts and William Mulholland; beaches and earthquakes; Skid Row and Beverly Hills. One aspect of L.A.'s history that is not always given its proper due historically, however, is its food.

Josh Kun, an Associate Professor at USC's Annenberg School, hopes to amend that with his book, To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City, which he wrote in collaboration with the L.A. Public Library and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. In it, he argues that menus of bygone eras are more than mere lists of foods, and hold more aggregate meaning than simple museum pieces from a certain place and time: they give insight and understanding into how the city was shaped through its food tastes and, indeed, how those tastes changed the very city around them.

The extremely busy Roy Choi pens the foreword ("It's about how to live. And how to dine. In L.A.," he writes) of an ambitious book with an admirable goal: challenging people to think about the implications of what we eat beyond the parameters of the food we put into our mouths.

An exhibit of the library's extensive menu collection, as well as as old photographs and artist installations about L.A.'s food history, is currently on view at L.A. Public Library's main branch on 5th Street in Downtown. The exhibit (also called "To Live and Dine in L.A."), aims to address "the timely and critically important topic of food justice, showing us how vintage menus can serve as documents that go beyond the table, acting instead as guides to the politics, economics, and sociology of eating." On display are beautiful old menus from the library's collection: places like Don the Beachcomber, The Brown Derby, Bob's Big Boy, Tick Tock Tea Room, and Slapsy Maxie's.

Menus give insight and understanding into how the city was shaped through its food tastes

The collection, housed in the Getty Gallery on the 2nd floor of the library, is surrounded by replica dining tables and chairs that are all colored an eye-splitting shade of neon green. It's not explained who made this choice, or why the furniture isn't done to look like they belonged to eras which they are purported to represent. That's really the only flaw of the exhibit, which otherwise does a nice job evenly displaying L.A.'s history through photos, menus, and dining innovations that the city invented or had a hand in propagating.

There is a section of the exhibit dedicated to the Lazy Susan, the table contraption ubiquitous to Chinese restaurants (though not limited to them); a section that honors the rise of the L.A. cafeteria in the early 1900s with The Boos Brothers and Clifton's; and the trend of putting illustrated maps of the city on menus, such as with The Brown Derby and Ollie Hammond's.

In addition to the collection, the exhibit features artist installations from Karla Diaz, Haruko Tanaka, and Fallen Fruit. The Library Foundation of L.A. also produced a series of videos in conjunction with the exhibit featuring some icons of the contemporary L.A. dining scene: Bricia Lopez from Guelaguetza, Micah Wexler from Wexler's Deli, and Cynthia Hawkins from Hawkins House of Burgers.

The exhibit "To Live and Dine in L.A." can currently be seen in the Getty Gallery at the L.A. Public Library's main branch in Downtown, 630 W. 5th Street, through November 13. The book by Josh Kun can be purchased at the library store. For more information, click here.

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