Take a glimpse into Wilmington’s rationed restaurant scene, circa World War II

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Tucked away with props from 'One Tree Hill' and other film projects, this 1943 menu for the Friendly Restaurants provides a window in time. (Courtesy New Hanover County Board of Commissioners)
Tucked away with props from ‘One Tree Hill’ and other film projects, this 1943 menu for the Friendly Restaurant provides a window in time into when food was rationed for World War Two. (Courtesy of New Hanover County Board of Commissioners)

WILMINGTON – A slice of Port City’s World War II-era culinary life was among donations to the Cape Fear Museum approved by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners earlier this week.

Like the other 14 donations, the menu for The Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant is a time-capsule, capturing part of the region’s 300-year history, according to Barbra Rowe, curator of the Cape Fear Museum. But unlike the film props from “One Tree Hill,” which help portray Wilmington in its heyday, the 1943 menu captures a restaurant at the height of World War II rationing.

At the Cape Fear Museum, curator Barbara Rowe showed the remarkable condition the menu was in. She said she was looking into more about the Friendly Restaurant's history. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
At the Cape Fear Museum, curator Barbara Rowe showed the remarkable condition the menu was in. She said she was looking into more about The Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant’s history. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“After sugar rationing in 1942, pretty much everything else you’d need in a restaurant would have been rationed by late 1943,” Rowe said. Restaurant owners would have had slightly better access to food, but still struggled with shortages and unavailability.

Some menu items are slightly mysterious. For example, who ordered the 20-cent ($2.81 in 2017 money lettuce and tomato sandwich? Also: what was the very German braunschweiger gooseliver sandwich doing on the menu? (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Some menu items are slightly mysterious. For example, who ordered the 20-cent ($2.81 in 2017) lettuce and tomato sandwich? Also: what was the German “braunschweiger” gooseliver sandwich doing on the menu at the height of WWII? (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Besides the rationing notice on the opening page, the menu bears other signs of the times, including lamb, pork and lots of seafood.

Considerably less popular in the United States than in the United Kingdom, lamb became increasingly used as a substitute for beef, according to Kelly Cantrell, a professor of history who wrote about World War II food rationing at the University of Mississippi.

Friendly Restaurant didn’t serve ribeye or NY strip, but they did feature a lamb dish, served in the British style with mint jelly. The lamb chops ran for 80 cents, around $11.23 in today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculations. It’s a fairly reasonable price by modern standards, even without taking into consideration it was at the height of world war.

Still, by the end of the war, lamb itself was growing scarce, while pork supplies – especially in North Carolina – remained strong. Thus pork, which had largely been a breakfast food, started appearing on lunch and dinner menus. The restaurant’s pork chop dish, served with roasted potatoes, would be $6.32 today.

Seafood owes at least some of its current popularity to the wartime rationing of the 1940s. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Seafood owes at least some of its current popularity to the wartime rationing of the 1940s. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Seafood was not rationed, though it could be expensive. The seafood platter is by far the most expensive on the menu, costing about $14 in 2017 dollars. Despite being pricey, the depleted stores of other proteins increasingly made seafood popular.

Beyond the menu, much about the restaurant remains a mystery. Rowe was able to locate an entry in the 1944-1945 Wilmington business directory. The restaurant, owned by Joel and Annie Pretlow, was located in the now vacant lot directly next to what is now the Copper Penny at 109 Chestnut Street.

The Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant was once around the corner from the original Dixie Cafe and Grill. (1944-1945 Wilmington Business Directory, photo Benjamin Schachtman)
The Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant was once around the corner from the original Dixie Cafe and Grill. (1944-1945 Wilmington Business Directory, photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

What was the Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant like? Rowe suggested it was, like many popular restaurants today, casual during the day and a little more refined at night. Rowe said, “Initially, when I asked around about the restaurant people had only heard of a Friendly Cafeteria, which would have been a different kind of place.”

After finding the listing for ‘Cafeteria and Restaurant,’ Rowe said “It seems likely they did cafeteria during the day and something nicer, sit down restaurant-style at dinner.”

The Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant lived at 111 Chestnut Street, next to the current Copper Penny. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
The Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant lived at 111 Chestnut Street, next to the current Copper Penny. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
On the far left, the Murchison Building. On the right is the current Cape Fear Hotel Apartments. In the middle, what is now the Copper Penny, and the Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant. (Courtesy Jennifer Daugherty, Senior Librarian, New Hanover County Library)
Wilmington, in the late 1930s. On the far left, the Murchison Building. On the right is the current Cape Fear Hotel Apartments. In the middle, what is now the Copper Penny, left, and the Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant, right. (Courtesy of Jennifer Daugherty, Senior Librarian, New Hanover County Library)

On the back of the menu, the proprietor’s music policy seems to indicate that the owners of The Friendly Cafeteria and Restaurant were trying to find a middle ground between, as they put it, “the extremes of the super-highbrow on the one hand and the quivering jitterbug on the other.” 

The Friendly Restaurant took requests, within reason. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
The Friendly Restaurant took requests, within reason. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

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