[caption id="attachment_169288" align="alignright" width="300"] The late Bill West fell in love with Riverview Cafe as a Marine stationed across the river. The restaurant continues to be a tradition for West’s
Bill West and two fellow Marines crept down to the water’s edge. They untied a rowboat and slipped into the bay. Pulling rank, West told his companions to row while he watched the shore. Had they been spotted? The boat sliced through the choppy waves in the inlet where the bay opened into the river. West watched the military camp outbuildings grow smaller. Then he turned and looked to the other side of the river, where lights glimmered on the water, beckoning. His shoulders relaxed. He’d made it — again.
The destination: Riverview Cafe in Sneads Ferry. The departure point: Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base most definitely not in the business of lending rowboats to its recruits.
Kimberly West heard her late father tell the story a thousand times. “He and his buddies would commandeer — we won’t say steal — a boat and row across Courthouse Bay to get seafood and beer at Riverview Cafe.”
Her mother, Sophia, Bill’s wife of 52 years and a lifelong Wilmington resident, acknowledges that their hometown has plenty of good seafood. “But Bill just fell in love with Riverview. We always went for special occasions. Anytime we had visitors, we had to take them there, and they had to hear the story.”
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Stories have been made, told, and retold at Riverview Cafe for generations, and owner Johnny Terwilliger has been around for most of them. His grandfather Jimmy Lewis started the place in 1946, and by the time Terwilliger was a sixth grader at Dixon Elementary, he had a part-time job washing dishes. He bought the business from his uncle in 1987, when he was just 23 years old. He had no formal business training, but he’d been watching his family long enough to know the recipe for success: Make good food, keep it affordable, and greet people by name.
“I have customers who have been coming here since 1946,” Terwilliger says. “It’s like family here.”
A server named Maryann Everingham chimes in, a plate of steaming hush puppies in hand: “I’ve waited on older people who tell me they remember coming here and sitting in a high chair.”
For Terwilliger, most of the menu items have family memories attached to them: Fried oysters, pulled from Stump Sound and cooked the way his granddaddy did it in 1946. Key lime pie, baked today by Melissa Hunter, whom Terwilliger’s mother taught how to make a perfect meringue. Chowders and gumbos made from scratch daily.
Terwilliger is especially proud of the weekday lunch special. “It comes with meat, two veggies, rolls or hush puppies, tea, and dessert — all home-cooked, changes every day,” he says. “We call it the local plate.”
Whether it’s a weekday or a weekend, be sure to get there early — the collard greens always sell out. Pause near the pie case to read the handwritten menu from an era when you could order a fish dinner for a dollar. Ask Everingham for a table in the back by the windows, where you can look across the New River to Camp Lejeune and try to imagine how much trouble Bill West would’ve gotten into if he’d been caught commandeering that rowboat. Before you know it, you’ll be telling your own stories over a hot plate of hush puppies.