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A la carte collection

Winnipegger's mass of menus provides warm memories of meals past

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We're not sure what the statute of limitations is for pilfering restaurant menus but here's hoping it's less than 30 years.

During the 1980s, Gayleen Peloquin was a frequent habitué of that late, great Winnipeg watering hole, the Rorie Street Marble Club. One evening, after Peloquin was all danced out, she surreptitiously slipped a Marble Club menu into her purse -- only because she thought the cover illustration, a tuxedo-clad penguin serving a cocktail, was "kind of cute."

A few weeks later, Peloquin stopped in at another of her haunts, the Blue Note Cafe on Main Street. Again, she went home with a menu. And a month after that, Peloquin "borrowed" a third menu -- this time from Mr. Greenjeans, which used to anchor the main floor of Eaton Place, now called cityplace.

"You know what they say: one of anything is a keepsake but three is a collection," Peloquin says, leafing through her Marble Club menu, trying to recall what she used to order at the Exchange District hot spot.

Three decades and umpteen meals later, Peloquin now has dozens of menus from a wide array of diners, drive-ins and dives. Her assortment is evenly split between hometown favourites like Ducky's Fish & Chips on Notre Dame Avenue and out-of-town finds like the Titanic Restaurant & Brewery in Coral Gables, Fla.

"At first I only kept those that caught my eye," she says, showing off a guitar-shaped menu from Toronto's Hard Rock Cafe, and another from dearly departed Grapes on Main -- the latter was die-cut to resemble a cluster of grapes. "Soon it became places where I really enjoyed the food. But after a while, I stopped discriminating; I just grabbed them from wherever." (Case in point: tucked in among her mosaic is a takeout menu from Foody Goody.)

Peloquin, whose favourite restaurant is La Fiesta Cafecito on St. Anne's Road, has set down two chief rules: 1) Before a menu can be permanently displayed on her kitchen wall, she has to have eaten at the restaurant it came from; 2) She always politely inquires if she can keep her menu as a souvenir of her visit, before she resorts to Plan B.

"I would never encourage anybody to steal -- especially my children -- but I must admit, there have been times when I've asked them to distract the waiter while I go about my business," she says, adding that one of her tricks is to hope her server can't count past four. "If there are five or six of us at a table, I'll take everybody's menu and hand them back in one pile, and hope the waiter doesn't notice one missing."

Furtiveness aside, Peloquin says that most restaurateurs are quite accommodating. Some immediately head to the kitchen and return with an out-of-date version -- one that was going to be tossed in the trash at some point, anyway. Others, like the staff at Pop Soda's on Portage Avenue, simply say, "Here you go."

"But if you want to know when I got each one, or what city or country a lot of them are from, I can't help you out," Peloquin says. "I don't date them or catalogue them, or do anything like that. This isn't exactly what you'd call a planned collection."

Ephemera societies across the world have wings devoted to people who also collect menus. But because the playing field is so large, most serious collectors narrow their searches, and concentrate only on menus gathered from, for example, tony steakhouses, Disney cruise ships or Las Vegas casinos.

Value is largely subjective. While eBay is rife with latter-day menus that can be bought for the price of an appetizer, vintage ones -- especially those with ties to the entertainment industry -- can command as much as five figures. Earlier this year a 47-year-old, in-flight menu signed by each member of the Beatles fetched US$9,491 when it came up for auction in England.

Seven years ago, Harley Spiller set a Guinness World Record for most takeout menus in a private collection. The New York resident has over 10,000 menus -- some upwards of 100 years old -- stored in boxes in and around his Manhattan apartment.

"All of the menus in my collection are from Chinese restaurants and/or places that offer Chinese fare," Spiller says when reached at home. "This additional qualification is what distinguishes my collection from others."

Spiller doesn't just collect menus. He teaches Chinese cooking classes at City University of New York, he is the author of one book, Chow Fun City: Three Decades of Chinese Cuisine in New York City, and he has participated in an Asia Society lecture series entitled "Dim Sum and Then Some."

Individual items from Spiller's stockpile have also been exhibited at the Museum of Chinese in America, and at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

As news of his collection got out (he's been featured on CNN, and in the Wall Street Journal), people from all over the world began sending him takeout menus through the mail. ("Yes!" he says, when a scribe asks him if he'd like a few from Winnipeg institutions like Oriental Pearl, Four Seasons and Hu's on First.)

Although Spiller doesn't have a Holy Grail, per se, he would love to hear from somebody who kept a menu from a Canadian restaurant he and his family used to frequent, years before he took up "menuing."

"I would pay for one from the Ports of Call restaurant in Toronto, where we dined frequently in the '60s and '70s," he says.

For more information on Spiller's menu collection, visit his website,

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 E3

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