Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
As fluid as the New York restaurant scene has always been, one thing has stayed the same: We are a city of discerning diners. So what did New Yorkers do before restaurant apps, before dining guidebooks, and survey ratings? Did we rely merely on word of mouth to uncover the best appetizer on the Upper East Side, the most kid-friendly lunch spot with a water view?
The Museum’s Manuscripts and Ephemera collection recently accessioned an object that helped me discover that the trend of reviewing and quantifying dining experiences did not begin in the 21st century with Yelp. The Gustavademecum for the Island of Manhattan or, A Check-List of the Best-Recommended or Most Interesting Eating-Places, Arranged in Approximate Order of Increasing Latitude and Longitude is an independently published guide to dining in Manhattan by Robert Browning Sosman (1881-1967). Sosman was an accomplished physical chemist and professor who lived in New Jersey and frequented New York City for business. Between 1941 and 1962 Sosman compiled data about his many meals in Manhattan restaurants and hotels, and self-published a yearly guide to distribute to friends and at conferences. The Museum’s edition dates from 1954.
“Gustavademecum” loosely translates from Latin as “taste with me.” The guide is clearly aimed at a data-minded audience, and Saveur magazine describes it as a “gastronomic brain trust”. The pocket-sized pamphlet is organized geographically – the 300 selected restaurants are arranged in order of increasing latitude and longitude – beginning with the southern end of Manhattan. The entries include the usual, in-demand information about a restaurant, including its address, type of cuisine, price, and hours. The guide also includes more unusual information, which Sosman quantifies as either “data” or “opinions.” Data categories include the average illumination at a table, measured in lumens, and the “noise level at the most active period of the day,” measured in decibels. A restaurant could rate at the quiet end of the scale, “N=30, country home, no children”, to the very loud, “N=80, shouting level”. The “opinions” alert diners to the quality of décor, service, other patrons, and toilet facilities. Other patrons could fall into several categories, including business, suburbanite, students, jitterbugs, and “citizens (Shakespearean sense).” Diners could also refer to the Gustavademecum to check what type of music would be played in an establishment, whether or not “piracy” was apt to occur at the hat-check, or what level of “cordiality of reception” to expect. What makes the guide unique is that all of this descriptive information is communicated with a Sosman-designed system of glyphs, Greek letters, and mathematical and astrological symbols.
The Gustavademecum offers a more personalized account of what it was like to dine out in Manhattan during the 1950s, and complements the Museum’s collection of hundreds of restaurant menus; several establishments included in the guide are represented in our collection. According to the guide, diners visiting Adolph’s Asti Restaurant on East 12th Street could enjoy Italian fare that received a G- rating, just below “good enough to reward walking 1 mile or going 20 minutes out of one’s way”. Entertainment in the form of piano and “home-made” music was provided every day by four entertainers, and other patrons typically included suburbanite types, arts-personnel, and travelers. However, diners would almost need to shout to hear each other, and the toilets received a rating of 1.6 out of 5. Sosman noted the restaurant’s 580 opera and stage portraits as memorable, but he gave the overall décor a rating of just a 1 out of 9.
Just as diners today must take Yelp reviews with a grain of salt, Sosman prefaces his opinions with a disclaimer, “Nota bene! De gustibus non est disputandum.” Translation: “There is no disputing about tastes.”
The Museum is grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose support has allowed us to digitize and share the menu included in this post, along with several thousand other images from our ephemera collections. The remainder will be available by early 2017.