Urban Change: New York City’s Food Culture

Food: a vital source to a person’s survival. Not only do we, humans, rely on food, but even our surroundings seem to be centered on the creation, distribution, and consumption of food. New York City is one of the biggest meccas of food culture. The city’s infrastructure, culture, demographic, and economic aspects have changed and evolved around such food culture.

After examining the “What’s on the menu?” source, I’ve realized how much New York City has evolved to what it is today. Back in the 1850s, many of New York City’s menu revolved around the accessibility to travelers and the upper-class. Much of these menus were either near the ports thus served fish and other shell fish dishes, or they were served in hotels and other housing facilities for such travelers. These eateries were heavily focused on the traveling visitor as well as the upper class. A lot of these menus were taken from high class hotels and “houses” thus showing how the lower class either relied on home-cooked meals and other amenities such as that. Restaurants weren’t meant for the lower class thus they only accommodated for the upper class and other business travelers coming in and out of the city’s ports.


As shown above, this is an example of a menu from the New York Hotel from 1859. The food selection seems very simple and straight to the point. These meals are geared for the traveler thus they need to be simple and easy to eat in order for the traveler to finish their business as quickly as they could to continue their tasks. Extravagance and variations weren’t present in food at this time and only started to develop during the 1950s.

As time progressed to the present, menus and the city’s food culture had evolved and developed immensely. Unlike the past, food diversified along with the people that now reside in the city. Now we see a multitude of different foods from different cultures. Restaurants and food have developed into a leisure activity and for enjoyment of the eater. No longer do we see restaurants only geared toward the traveler and upper-class. The middle-class is heavily targeted when developing restaurants we see today. Food has evolved to a new complex form with many different styles, flavors, and cultures. This then shows how much the city has diversified among its people in class, culture, and infrastructure. No longer is the city heavily influenced by the ports structure and accommodating for the traveler. Food now is a leisure and pleasure activity for friends, families, workers, and anyone to sit down and enjoy the meal.

This is the menu of the oyster bar that is located inside Grand Central. Now we see prices are listed on the menu. The menu is now more descriptive and diverse in its flavors and styles. You can see that they even incorporated different cultures into similar meals thus further showing how much the city has developed culturally and socially.

Food culture in New York City now focuses on anyone and everyone. Through food we can see how the city has diversified in its culture among its residents as well as the change in infrastructure.

Claire Ng

1 comment

  1. I also found looking at the Menus super informative. I like how you pointed out that many of the menus in the late 1800s to early 1900s were catering towards the traveler and the upperclass. I understood how the hotel menus catered towards New York’s elite but I kept wondering, why are there so many seafood menus!?! That’s a great point that many resturants were there to serve people like traders and bisunessmen. Thanks for pointing that out and broadening my understanding of the menu archives!