The Missouri and Illinois state fairs begin in a few weeks, and you know what kind of food you can get there: Corn dogs. Sausages. Deep-fried dough doodles.
But what would it have been like 111 years ago, if you had been able to go to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair?
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, as it was officially called, was huge. During the seven months that it was open, an estimated 20 million people filed through the 1,200 acres in the western part of Forest Park to gawk at the amazing inventions and cultures from around the world.
Naturally, they had to be fed.
The corn dog wasn’t invented until 1942, so the crowds had to fill up on other fare. Fortunately, there were plenty of restaurants among the fair’s 1,500 buildings to feed them.
Sample menus of many of these restaurants are collected at the Library and Research Center at the Missouri History Museum.
Some of the more exotic restaurants were situated on the Pike, a mile-long street just north of Lindell Boulevard that was divided into areas representing different parts of the world: Paris and French villages, Cairo, China, the streets of Seville, a Moorish palace, “Mysterious Asia” and the like.
The Fair Japan Restaurant and Roof Garden was on the Pike, surely offering for most visitors their introduction to Japanese food. Or at least up to a point.
“It makes us laugh because it doesn’t sound all that Japanese,” museum librarian Emily Jaycox said.
The bulk of the Fair Japan Restaurant’s menu was given over to familiar foods such as broiled whitefish (50 cents), filet mignon Parisienne ($1) and lamb chops (20 cents apiece). And 30 cents would buy a dish you can still get at the state fair, frankfurter with sauerkraut or potato salad.
But adventuresome fair-goers could also order one of the five “special Japanese dishes,” including teri-yaki and shio-yaki (“fish broiled, seasoned with salt”) for 50 cents each, and a bowl of sui-mono clear soup for a quarter.
Down the street was The Old Parliament House, the restaurant in the Irish Village section. Here, too, one wonders about their concept of native cuisine. You could get a ham sandwich for a dime, a tongue sandwich for 15 cents, a sardine sandwich for a quarter or a caviar sandwich for a quarter.
A caviar sandwich? I want a caviar sandwich.
On the menu the museum has in its collection, the daily specials included fried frog legs ($1) and soft-shell crabs with tartar sauce (75 cents).
It is hard to say what on the menu was supposed to be particularly Irish, although every hot meal or fish order came with free boiled potatoes. The Irish specialties appear to be limited to the restaurant’s bar, which sold three different types of Bass ale for 35 cents a pint (in contrast, Pabst Blue Ribbon was 15 cents a pint) and John Jameson’s Dublin Whiskey for 15 cents.
And, of course, you could get what was presumably the same frankfurter with sauerkraut or potato salad that was available at the Japanese restaurant for the same price, 30 cents.
Upscale diners who wanted the very best food available headed, no doubt, to the Lüchow-Faust World’s Fair Restaurant in the Tyrolean Alps section of the Pike. This restaurant was a combination of two of the best-known restaurants of the era, August Lüchow in New York City and St. Louis’ own Tony Faust’s Oyster House and Restaurant.
Apparently in contrast to other places at the fair, Lüchow-Faust offered “crystal water, absolutely pure” for the unheard-of price of 5 cents a glass (which would be more than $1.20 today).
At Lüchow-Faust, you could begin with a bowl of mutton broth with barley or cream of oysters (both 40 cents) or perhaps a clear green turtle broth (50 cents).
Several options were offered for a fish course (fillet of black bass for 90 cents, cold kenebec salmon for 75 cents), and diners looking for lighter fare might sample an omelette au rum for 75 cents or an omelette with chicken livers and madeira sauce for 90 cents.
Patrons could indulge in calves brains with black butter for 65 cents or try the even more culturally alarming “Deutsches sauerbraten mit spagetti” for 85 cents. If they wanted finer dining they could tear into a tenderloin steak for $1.50 or try the chateaubriand for $3 (more than $72 today).
And remember the frankfurters with sauerkraut or potato salad sold for 30 cents at the Japanese or Irish restaurants? At Lüchow-Faust it was called Heinrich Bauer’s Imported Frankfurter Sausages.
It cost 50 cents.