The food menu as we know it today is an invention of the 19th century. Traditionally, during a meal in France, all dishes, divided into three (or more) successive services, were simultaneously presented to the guests. When diners entered a room, all the dishes of the first service, in their great variety, were already arranged symmetrically on a very large, richly laid table. While admiring the dishes, guests ordered the servants to serve them by selecting the dishes that suited them.
A menu was superfluous, because the dishes were present and visible on the table, similar to contemporary buffets, if more lavish. The process was repeated at least three times with a minimum of two services de « cuisine » and one fixed service « l’office », whereas nowadays a meal is almost always divided into two parts, salty and desserts.
However, During a meal "à la russe", the dishes have been presented and served one by one, in a sequence determined by the host. The menu becomes necessary to inform guests of the content of the meal. At that time, dishes were more numerous than today - at least a dozen courses.
Urbain Dubois and Émile Bernard, chefs of Emperor William I and authors of "La Cuisine", one of the most important and certainly the most beautiful culinary texts books published in the nineteenth century, compare the French and Russian services:
"In the Service "à la russe", the method of presenting dishes to guests, instead of putting them symmetrically on the table, has the obvious benefit that the delicacies are served in the best conditions of heat and perfect doneness, since once cooked, they are served and eaten immediately. The Russian service has created two variants: the service à l’anglaise (in English style) - the server serves the guest open plates; and the service à l’italienne (in italian style) - the portions come from the kitchen on a plate covered with a silver cloche."
Early food menus have been works of art. To add prestige to the meal, the menu was illustrated to please the eye - this was the era of the engravings of Gustave Doré for the Bible, The Divine Comedy, Orlando Furioso, Don Quichotte and many other classics of literature .
In 1873, the restaurant "La Marmite" was founded in Paris, and soon personalities of the judiciary, the military and government met there. It aimed to restore the greatness of France, to raise their morale and head back toward a great destiny. The menus of "La Marmite" (which began to be printed from 1882) were created exclusively by renowned artists, with only a constraint: integrating a large pot in their composition. At that time, the development of chromolithography had done a great service to the menu: printing in multiple colors accentuated the graphic effect, and it became possible to reproduce many perfectly identical copies at low cost.
At the same time, major brands of champagnes, cognacs, liqueurs and food products commissioned richly illustrated labels. Moët et Chandon commissioned Alphons Mucha in several famous series of high artistic value. Martell has used the services Albert Guillaume, Benedictine liqueur commissioned Louise Abbéma. A few years later in Italy, Fernet-Branca commissioned Marcello Dudovich and Cinzano worked with Carlo Biscaretti and other famous artists.