The Sexist History Of Restaurant Menus You Never Knew About

Ah, sexism. Just when you think you've heard it all, another historical example of sexism comes skipping onto the scene, twirling its pigtails and licking a lollipop. Then, sticking its lollipop into your hair and spinning it around a little before skipping off again. From Eve getting all the blame for Adam's transgressions in the Garden of Eden to, oh, about five seconds ago when someone somewhere did something sexist, discrimination based on gender has not gone away. And while it's important to look at how far we have to go, sometimes it's fun to look backward and see how far we've come, too.

The restaurant industry is historically rife with sexism (and presently rife, but that's a story for another day). From "sexy shoe policies" to the alleged transgressions of famed chef Mario Batali, workplace discrimination based on gender finds all kinds of creative ways to rear its ugly head where food is involved. But when it comes to the patrons, Eater says restaurant sexism is often subtle; some gendered customs are so traditional that they are often mistaken for chivalry if they are even noticed at all. Ladies, have you ever ordered a bottle of wine, only to watch the first taste offered to the man at your table to approve the selection? Gentlemen, do you find yourself automatically being presented with the bill when dining with female friends? Bonus question: do you find it offensive that your server is even assuming your gender, to begin with?

Appreciate the gesture, would rather have the facts

Believe it or not, if you are a woman dining at a restaurant, and you check your menu to find out just how much that cheeseburger costs before you order it, you're taking one small step for your budget, and one giant leap for feminism. In the 1980s, famed attorney Gloria Allred and her clients took a West Hollywood restaurant to court for discrimination, after learning that it used "ladies' menus" in its service, according to Atlas Obscura

A ladies' menu, or a "blind menu," as it's sometimes referred to, is a menu in which all of the prices have been removed; the assumption being that women needn't worry their pretty little heads about how much things cost, as it will be the man of the party who will ultimately be paying the bill. Atlas Obscura says that the practice of offering ladies a price-free menu was far more common in Europe than in America; L'Orangerie, the restaurant involved in the lawsuit, were actually French immigrants, attempting to recreate a very European custom in their very Los Angeles eatery.

Obviously, it didn't go down too well. Though some argued that the practice was simply good old-fashioned courtesy (like "lighting a cigarette, or standing up when [a woman] enters the room," according to Atlas Obscura), most agreed that women should be let in on the pricing structure behind the food they were about to consume, no matter who was footing the bill.

The battle against sexism continues worldwide

The case outlined in Atlas Obscura was eventually dropped, but the impact that the lawsuit made lingered on. L'Orangerie did away with its dual menu system, and the European-style "ladies menu," already a seldom-seen practice in American restaurants, became a pariah to restaurateurs, who saw it as potentially offensive at best, and the harbinger of legal woes at worst.

Funnily enough (or, maybe, not that funny), while Team Allred and America at large seem to have shot down the concept of a "ladies menu" quite handily in the '80s, there are plenty of places around the world still trying to fight the good fight for female patrons in restaurants. Unilad reported just last year that a blogger's outrage at being handed a "ladies' menu" while dining at a restaurant in Milan with her male partner had her followers up in arms. According to Unilad, some Italian restaurant workers argued that the habit was "a form of gallantry," while others labeled it outdated and rude. 

In 2019, Fox News reported that a touristy, high-end restaurant in Lima, Peru, was fined $62,000 for its use of a "ladies' menu." Meanwhile, according to Eater, there are restaurants in America that are pushing the equality campaign further still, challenging the traditional "ladies first" method of serving customers. Kinda makes you wonder what well-intentioned practices we'll look back on in 40 years as ridiculous, ignorant, or just plain offensive. Until then, at least everyone knows what they're paying for dinner.