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Guinness Record Holder Takes His Famed Chinese Menu Collection Online

 Collector Harley Spiller estimates he has more than 10,000 Chinese takeout menus in his Woodside studio.
Harley Spiller's Chinese Food Menu Collection
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WOODSIDE — The front door of Harley Spiller's studio offers a sight rarely seen in New York City — a sign that reads "More Menus Please."

Spiller, 54, welcomes take-out menus stuffed in his mailbox or slipped under his door — because they could be fodder for his famed collection of Chinese restaurant menus, which he's been stockpiling for more than three decades.

He estimates he has more than 10,000 menus spanning more than a century — the oldest dates back to 1879 — and from more than 100 nations. They've earned him media attention and a Guinness World Record for the largest menu collection, and they also offer a storied look at the evolution of the city's Chinese food joints.

"You read a menu in a restaurant to feed your stomach, but you collect them as primary historical documents," said Spiller, a museum administrator and educator who works for the Franklin Furnace Archive and the Museum of American Finance. He lives with his family on the Upper East Side, and stores his menus in boxes at their studio space in Queens.

Now, the images from many of Spiller's rare and vintage menus are being featured online, where they can be purchased as art posters, prints and even coffee mugs.

"There's this great trove of vintage menu art that is laying about in a lot of places, not seen for decades," said Charles Baum, co-founder of the company Cool Culinaria, which is featuring Spiller's collection.

"I think he's really turned into a scholar of the art of menus, and the history," Baum said.

The prints being featured on Cool Culinaria include the art from a menu at Mon Lay Won, an upscale restaurant at 24 Pell St. that was popular at the turn of the century, where diners could buy fried sharks fins for $1.50.

Another dated 1937 is from Chin's, a restaurant on Broadway in Times Square which features artwork by Henri Lamothe, a well-known illustrator at the time.

Spiller said he scours his menus for clues about what era they may have come from.

"I never thought I would, but I entered history through this," he said. "It happened through Chinese menus."

A collector for much of his life — he started with pennies at 5 years old — Spiller said he turned his attention to Chinese restaurant menus during his first few weeks living in New York City in 1981, while he was staying with friends on the Upper West Side and found himself alone in the apartment one night.

"I heard a noise at the door and I thought, 'Oh no, I'm not even in New York a week and I’m already getting robbed," he recalled.

"I cowered, and I peeked around the corner and there was a shimmying paper noise, and it was a restaurant menu from Hunan Royal restaurant on 94th and Broadway."

Spiller kept the menu, interested in how the cuisine differed from the Chinese food he'd eaten growing up in Buffalo, N.Y.

He kept on collecting them after he realized they offered a historical portrait of the city — not just of what restaurants once existed, but also of trends in how people eat.

In the late 1980s, Szechwan cuisine food was all the rage, replacing Mandarin-style cuisine. Later, in the diet-crazed 1990s, steamed dishes and special heart-healthy sections appeared.

Today's menus veer towards using words like "Asian fusion," Spiller said, and many eateries now boast their city Health Department letter grades. In neighborhoods with large Hispanic populations, dishes like fried plantains grace the menus.

Spiller collected many of the menus himself, while others were gifts from friends. He purchased the older items on eBay, paying anywhere from $1 to $200 each, Spiller said. He's had the collection appraised, but declined to say what he thinks it's worth.

Someday, he says, he hopes his menus will find their way to a university or a museum, "where the public can use them and see them and learn from them.

"If we had a menu from the cave period, then the Museum of Natural History would go to town on that — it would be prize," he said. "You could learn so much about what they did and thought and ate."