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Hennepin Gallery's 'Your Table is Ready': 100 years of local dining culture on display

A selection of historic dinner menus on display at "Your Table is Ready: Dining Out in Hennepin County through the Decades."

A selection of historic dinner menus on display at "Your Table is Ready: Dining Out in Hennepin County through the Decades." Sarah Brumble

In the breezeway connecting the Government Center with City Hall, across the way from Park Cafe, the Hennepin County Library's Special Collections has filled a gallery with a colorful record of how we once stuffed our bellies.

And viewing the exhibit is entirely free to the public.

"Your Table is Ready: Dining Out in Hennepin County through the Decades" celebrates our storied love of food and fine dining, tracing how it has changed and evolved over the past century or more.

Vivid, vintage artifacts like menus, postcards, period photos, ashtrays, and more do the bulk of the heavy lifting. This ephemera is arranged chronologically along the length of Hennepin Gallery, beginning with the late 1800s and progressing through the 1970s or so.

The exhibit is broken into sections that function almost like eras, each with accompanying info. Gaze upon the heyday of department store restaurants in wonder (that women once couldn't eat in the Oak Grill unescorted) before thoroughly considering the history of Chinese food in Minneapolis (which extends beyond a standard fixation on the Nankin Lounge). Special attention is paid to suburban eateries, themed restaurants, and legends like Schiek's Café and Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale, even as still thriving legends like Murray's and Jax get a nod, too. 

Artifacts once belonging to Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale

Artifacts once belonging to Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale Sarah Brumble

Hennepin County Library's special collections librarian Bailey Diers explained that the materials on display were pulled from an ever-growing collection of more than 1,000 historic menus in their catalog, which are acquired through a mixture of donations and strategic eBay purchases.

Though the library's collection includes contemporary menus in addition to obviously historic gems, those featured in this exhibition trickle out around the '80s in part due to reasons of design and aesthetics. Diers said the items before us were a mixture of originals and reprints enlarged to better fill the gallery space, which also helped facilitate easier reading on the part of interested parties.

Assembling this show was made possible in part thanks to the mass digitization of Hennepin County's Menu Collection. This detail means that even if making it to see "Your Table is Ready" in-person before it closes on May 26 proves difficult, so much of the collection from which this exhibit was drawn is available for you to peruse anytime, day or night.

Artifacts once belonging to Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale

Artifacts once belonging to Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale Sarah Brumble

"Your Table is Ready: Dining Out in Hennepin County through the Decades"
Hennepin Gallery at Hennepin County Government Center
300 S. 6th Street, Minneapolis
Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (through May 26)