Images courtesy of Elaine Henson and the Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library
No one dared show up for dinner in shorts and flip flops on Wrightsville Beach 100 years ago. Back then, eating out was a fancy affair for those who braved the journey to seaside restaurants.
They called them excursions, says Elaine Henson. She will present A Century of Dining at Wrightsville: 1880s to 1980s, at 7 pm July 24 at Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.
Henson refers to ladies in prim, white Victorian dresses and men wearing to-the-chin collars. Such attire appears de rigueur in faded black-and-white photos. Henson scrolls through antiquated menus peppered between the people pictures.
Crabs Minced Mayonnaise. Creamed Sweetbreads in Casserole. Soft Shelled Crab au Canape. Roast Long Island Duckling with Kumquat Marmalade. Dinner specials hardly speak to restaurants that were stuck on wild shores.
Even before there was a place named Wrightsville Beach, there was a restaurant. Henson s two years of extensive research revealed a surprising number of markets, food and drink places -- easily 100 --- over the century, she says.
Henson interviewed residents and friends, reviewed old phone book Yellow Pages, vintage post cards, newspaper reports and the collections of Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, the New Hanover County Public Library and historians Bill Creasy and Bill Reaves.
Henson found the first dining room and every one that followed. Fussy menus, formal dress and difficult travel for the sake of dining are just some of the surprises Henson dishes up.
It wasn t like it is today, Henson says, raising her eyebrows over her reading glasses. Not at all.
The area s first restaurants, like most early eateries in what would become the town of Wrightsville Beach, were dining rooms inside two hotels: Sea Side Park and Pine Grove House. They debuted in 1884 not on the beach but on the Wrightsville Sound mainland, Henson points out, because at the time, boats were the only way to reach Ocean View Beach, Wrightsville s original name.
In the late 1880s when Wilmington Seacoast Railroad Co. ran the Beach Car Line from downtown Wilmington s Front Street to the Hammocks, now Harbor Island, and tracks were extended across Banks Channel to the beach a year later, dining rooms emerged to serve an expanding market.
At least four hotel dining rooms dotted the Wrightsville shoreline by the late 1800s. The first was Hinton s Cafe at the circa 1892 Ocean View hotel, Henson says. A September 1892 Wilmington Messenger article congratulates owners E.L. and J.H. Hinton for having the summer season s most successful restaurant. Henson says the Hintons also ran accommodations in Wilmington and Carolina Beach.
The article extolls, the unrivaled manner in which soft shell crabs, deviled crabs, picked crabs, shrimps, pigfish, clam chowder, etc., has been served to the delegation of epicurean visitors to the seashore.
Significant is the article s mention of the Ocean View manager -- not a man, as might be expected in the period s male-dominated working world, but a woman, Mrs. W.E. Mayo, proprietress, Henson says. Wrightsville Beach Museum executive director Madeline Flagler agrees.
Women not only managed hotel restaurants. They owned and operated popular early and mid-1900s guest houses, where lodgers slept upstairs and took dinner downstairs.
It was one of the things a woman could do with a family if her husband passed away, Flagler says. It was something you could do and do well and still have a real life.
Guest cottages were common, but grand hotels clustered near the Banks Channel bridge garnered attention for elite menus and dining events. Whether tourists lodged in the hotels or came just for the day, it was the norm to dine at hotel restaurants, Henson says.
Two hundred people attended the 1897 Seashore Hotel debut dinner featuring 32 selections including Broiled Summer Trout with Parsley Sauce, Pommes Parisienne, Lemon Pie and Macaroons. An American history-themed 1912 Independence Day menu offered Plymouth Rockfish with Lexington Sauce, Calf Brains a la George IV and Saltines with Young American Cheese.
A pack of 10 meal tickets for $5 entitled Hotel Tarrymoore guests to cuisine unsurpassed, according to a 1905 advertisement. Tarrymoore opened that year, was later renovated and then reintroduced in spring 1911 as the magnificent peaked and electric-light-strung Oceanic. Bills of fare reflected elegant French cuisine that characterized the area s menus. Still, humble, local favorites (broiled Spanish mackerel, clam fritters, candied sweet potatoes, corn on the cob) were served, too.
Despite tony cuisine and posh dining rooms, restaurants suffered behind-the-scenes challenges.
Fresh food was not trendy, as today, but mandatory. Lack of refrigeration required frequent train and, after 1902, trolley deliveries of ice and provisions.
Most food was grown and raised nearby, Henson says. Cattle that supplied milk and meat grazed near the shore or on present-day Harbor Island. The island town was incorporated in 1899. Henson recalls one hotel fire news report that mentioned yard chickens cooked by the blaze.
Nearly everything was made from scratch, and safe food handling was demanding, Henson says. In 1919, state inspectors examined Oceanic after the N.C. Board of Health in Raleigh received complaints. Inspectors found dirty tableware, flies in the kitchen due to lack of window screens, water that tasted of decayed wood and warm, stinking ice boxes awaiting ice deliveries.
When an inspector dined that evening, he was served spoiled fish and a fly floating in his iced tea.
The hotel received a health score of 51 out of a possible 100.
The following year, an improved Oceanic advertised a staff of kitchen employees especially skilled in the preparation of seafoods. The dining room remained popular until a massive 1934 fire leveled Oceanic and 102 other buildings.
When Wrightsville Beach opened to automobiles in 1935, restaurants blossomed. The mid- century presented three major seafood-centric choices: Neptune, Marina Grill and Faircloth s, Henson says.
At age 67, The Neptune, now named King Neptune, on downtown Wrightsville Beach s Lumina Avenue is considered New Hanover County s oldest restaurant, and once featured seafood and steaks cooked to a king s taste.
Marina Grill opened in 1946 in abandoned World War II Marine Corps barracks on the Wrightsville Beach Causeway. The restaurant boasted an approval seal from Duncan Hines, then regarded The American authority on good eating rather than the king of cake mix. In 1947, a Marina deluxe two-course seafood dinner, with a choice of one entree -- shrimp Newburg, fried frog legs and shad roe with bacon among them -- and fries, clam fritters and coleslaw on the side, cost $1.50.
Apparel became more and more casual, although men in ties and ladies in neat dresses still appeared in mid-to-late-1900s photographs. Today, collared shirts certainly seem too stuffy for mid-20th century eateries that were called oyster roasts. They served steamed and fried seafood in ultra-casual settings.
One of the most popular oyster roasts was the two-story Faircloth s. Located in the vicinity of the current Bridge Tender on Airlie Road, Faircloth s hosted separate dining rooms and a dock for commercial fishers.
It was like a house, Henson says. They didn t knock down the walls and make one big dining room.
Faircloth s, launched in 1945 and demolished in 1981, was so popular it sponsored a huge float in Wilmington s 1953 Azalea Festival parade.
People tell me they knew they were almost at the beach when they could smell Faircloth s, Flagler says.
One beloved oyster roast was not at Wrightsville Beach, Henson says. Visitors felt it worth the drive to Cabbage Inlet Lane on Masonboro Sound to visit Uncle Henry s, which advertisements say began in 1900.
In what looked like an old one-story house, Uncle Henry Kirkum bragged one nibble and you re hooked. Hurricane Hazel destroyed the restaurant in 1954, but it was rebuilt, and as late at 1989 was advertising seafood platters for $8.50.
Wrightsville Beach restaurateurs accommodated every generation s tastes.
The famous Lumina Pavilion (1905-1973), staged formal ballroom dances but also hosted a grill in the mid-1900s. Seaside Soda Shop and Grocery operated next door. Newell s Soda Shop, a popular teen hangout dating to 1934, was at Station 1, the trolley line s first stop, near what is now the intersection of Lumina Avenue and Waynick Boulevard.
Resourceful restaurant owners understood their customers, and they provided twists and memorable tales. Greek family-owned restaurants featured homeland dishes, such as Greek meatballs. Mediterraneo, now 22 North downtown on Lumina Avenue, claimed the best in Italian food.
It was tremendously popular, Henson says. I went there along with everybody else. It was a hot place.
Henson and Flagler know that for A Century of Dining at Wrightsville: 1880s to 1980s attendees will bring their own precious recollections.
Those are very deep memories, Flagler said. Different eating establishments are so much part of the culture here. You go to the beach, and you re there all day, and somehow the food tastes better when you re sunburned.