Review: To Live and Dine in L.A.

To Live and Dine in L.A. is an exhibition of menus from the Los Angeles Public Library Collection currently on view in the Getty Gallery at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.  The exhibit’s timing is particularly serendipitous as downtown LA experiences a culinary renaissance.  From the recent re-opening of the legendary Clifton’s Cafeteria to the seemingly weekly emergence of a hip new restaurant, this moment is a sweet spot for exploring the history of Los Angeles’ restaurant culture. 

Exhibition Entrance
Exhibition entrance

To Live and Dine explores that culture with a focus on menu ephemera.  Curator Josh Kun observes:

By visiting the food past, menus help us reflect on the food present and the food future in a global city where how we eat—and who eats—tells us so much about who we are.

Such is the auspicious text taken from the label at the entrance to an exhibition I admit I was wary to visit.  My apprehension stemmed from the concern that an exhibition of menus would be a dull stroll around a box-like room staring at framed menu after framed menu.  So much more interesting, thought I, to sift through the library’s menu collection unearthing gems.  My enthusiasm for doing such research has not diminished but I am pleased that Josh Kun has done the work first and curated To Live and Dine.

The Clock
Menu from The Clock


Zamboanga menu


The exhibition is roughly organized into two parts: “Please Seat Yourself at the Welcome Table” and “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to No One.”  The primary section, “Please Seat Yourself,” winds its way through the gallery and is the exhibition’s meat and potatoes.  Organized according to nine different dining experiences—including “The Lunch Counter” and “Dinner in Jail”—the exhibition’s design literally places the visitor at tables and counters in order to look at menus carefully displayed beneath clear acrylic sheets.  The concept is fun and manages creatively to make the exhibition interactive without the use of iPads and lots of other tech-heavy intervention.  The hue of florescent green that is the exhibition’s cohesive color scheme, however, tends to cast an unappetizing light on things.  Nonetheless, the exhibition demonstrates that it is possible to display 2D artifacts in innovative ways that engage visitors. 

Cafeteria for All
Menus on display in the "Cafeteria for All" section


Condiments on the Lazy Susan
Day-Glo condiments on the Lazy Susan


Lunch counter
Menus at the lunch counter

Throughout the gallery and interspersed with the different counters and tables is “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to No One.”  This aspect of the exhibition features three artist installations by Karla Diaz, Haruko Tanaka, and the duo David Burns and Austin Young.  The art is pleasing, yet thematic relationships between artwork and exhibited menus is difficult to discern.  This exhibition component could be strengthened by more explicitly conveying to visitors what the connections are between the art installations and restaurant culture and menus.

Invisible Kitchen
Haruko Tanaka's "Invisible Kitchen" installation


Prison Gourmet
Karla Diaz' "Prison Gourmet" installation


According to To Live and Dine’s menu-style gallery guide, one of the exhibition’s goals is:

 . . . to raise awareness about the staggering divides between our celebrated dining pasts, presents, and futures, and the too-often ignored pasts, presents, and future of our city’s hunger crises.

Even as downtown LA experiences a culinary renaissance, increased homelessness in the area paired with an influx of the hip, young and monied, has resulted in cultural tensions.  The library does not turn a blind eye and instead has generated exhibition-related programming that includes offering free lunches to children, urban gardening workshops, and diabetes nutrition instruction sessions.  Such programming acknowledges that not everyone can afford to dine at chic restaurants yet we all must eat.  Given LA’s increasing cost of living and the fact that Los Angeles County, according to the gallery guide, “was recently ranked the #1 county in the nation for the food insecurity of young people,” the programming is admirable and calls to mind the 1970s era Black Panthers’ Oakland-based food activism when children were served free, hot breakfast.  It would have been very easy to make this an exhibition about fabulous bourgeois dining experiences.  Such an exhibition could be fun—Brown Derby, anyone?—and potentially help raise funds for the library’s special collections.  Yet the organizers have chosen to take an impressive—and sometimes uncomfortably racist—menu collection and create an exhibition that manages both to be lighthearted and activist by addressing food justice issues. 

Old Dixie
Old Dixie menu


Maxey's Singapore Spa


While food justice concerns have been more strongly engaged in related library programming than in the exhibition itself, the impetus is nonetheless present.  And that’s a good thing.

Disney menu
Disney Studio menu


Printing block
Linoleum menu printing block


Visit to read essays pertaining to food justice.  Run, don’t walk to the Central Public Library by Friday the 13th to catch the exhibition before it goes away and to donate menus from your personal collection.

Menu donations
Menu donations

To Live and Dine in L.A. is on exhibit June 13-November 13, 2015 in the Getty Gallery of the Los Angeles Central Public Library located at 630 W. 5th Street.  The library is open Monday through Thursday, Friday and Saturday 9:30-5:30, and Sunday 1-5.





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