Let’s Read an Old Menu, Featuring: Smalls’ Paradise, Harlem, New York, date unknown c. 1930s

Hello, everyone and welcome to Let’s Read An Old Menu! This is another in a weekly series looking at restaurant, hotel kitchen, and lunch counter menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. Sometimes things will be familiar, sometimes they’ll be weird. But one thing you can count on is that they’ll almost always have cottage cheese on the menu, and they’ll almost never actually explain what’s in anything.

What’s For Dinner?

The legendary Smalls’ Paradise Cabaret, at some uncertain point in the 1930s.

Is The Restaurant Still There? If not, what can we find out about it?

Smalls’ Paradise closed in 1986, sadly, but its impact on the history of American culture is nearly inestimable. It was located at 2294 7th Avenue, in Manhattan. Opening in 1925, Smalls’ Paradise was the only of the famous Harlem jazz clubs to be fully integrated, and the only one to be operated by a black man during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the only one to stay open all through the night and into the morning. Famous jazz musicians and entertainters associated with it include Fess Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Benny Carter, Jimmy Smith, Elmer Snowden, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, King Curtis, Buddy Rich, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller (though mainly as a patron rather than an entertainer), and Billie Holliday (whose first ever professional audition, which she flubbed, was there.) Malcolm X also was employed at Smalls’ Paradise as a waiter in 1942-43. In 1951, following a McCarthyist smear campaign that saw several attendees (including himself, Albert Einstein, and Paul Robeson) as Communists, W.E.B. DuBois celebrated his 83rd birthday at Smalls’ Paradise. Struggling for most of the decade, it came under the ownership of Wilt Chamberlain, who had aspired for some time to open a nightclub, and found a second life. Under Chamberlain, it hosted such acts as Ray Charles, Redd Foxx, Millie Jackson, and Jerry Butler. Today its former location is home to the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change.

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We’ve got a drink menu, so this is presumably after December of 1933. With that in mind:

$1 in 1934=$19.07 in 2019

I know there’s been some demand for a Chinese menu in the comments. I had intended to feature a more conventional Chinese restaurant at some point in the near future, and if you like I still will, but at around the same time black music first became trendy in New York City, Chinese food did the same, and it seems Smalls’ Paradise was offering a number of Chinese-American selections. The selections are things modern Chinese Restaurant-Goers will recognize today, for the most part. “Chicago Chop Suey” apparently features larger, chunkier pieces of vegetables and is served in a brown sauce (think like Beef and Broccoli.) Yat Go Mein, or Yaka Mein, is a sort of beef noodle soup with hard-boiled eggs in it found in the Chinese restaurants of New Orleans, fitting for a jazz club of the period. This is an early one, notice that even familiar staples like egg rolls and fortune cookies haven’t been popularized yet– this is just around the time fortune cookies were starting to spread out from San Francisco, and just around the time that, just a few blocks away in Chinatown, egg rolls were getting invented.

The drink menu is exciting and extensive. Ironically, despite being described as the “Wine List”, the wine selection isn’t much to sneeze at– we’re a while away from Americans appreciating wine once again. What’s your poison? Me, I think I’ll have a nice egg nog with my chop suey! (Note: I will not be.)

As for the American menu section, not much that’s too unusual to my eyes today. Perhaps that’s the mark of a good restaurant– 85 years later we still want to eat there. I have never encountered fried chicken livers, bacon, and spaghetti on a single plate before, but something tells me that I might have to give them a shot soon. (A Western Sandwich is a Denver omelette on bread, for those not in the know. A Golden Buck is Welsh Rarebit with an egg.)

Join us next week for… I’m thinking it’s time for a soda fountain?