Especially with high inflation, food prices in San Francisco can feel insane. $50 for a basic dinner? Yup, that’s a pretty standard price you might pay today.
But was it always this way? Historically, how much would a big meal in San Francisco cost?
To find out, we took a look back in time, via a 1943 menu for San Francisco’s Forbidden City, a swanky nightclub and Chinese food restaurant that operated in the city from 1938 until the 1970s.
This particular menu was preserved by the New York Public Library. It shows prices for food and drinks at the Forbidden City for a standard meal in the 1940s.
What a Chinese Food Meal Cost in 1943
The menu lists a massive Chinese food feast that guests could order. It’s a multi-course meal that began with various relishes.
Diners would then receive egg flower soup as a starter, followed by crab foo yeong, “yum yum” chicken saute, sweet and sour spare ribs and rice. All of this was accompanied by jasmine tea.
For dessert, diners would receive assorted Chinese ice creams, with flavors like vanilla, lichee, ginger and assorted cakes.
Even today, that would be quite a feast! I can imagine feeling pretty full after eating a Chinese food meal like that.
How much would such a feast cost in 1943? This massive feast cost only $3.00.
Don’t Forget a $1.75 Bottle of Wine!
Of course, the feast wasn’t the only thing on the menu at Forbidden City. You could also get a full Peking duck for $6.50 or chow mein for $3.50.
Drinks were offered at the restaurant, too.
A nice bottle of chablis would set you back a cool $1.75, and fancy cocktails like a Pink Lady or a gimlet cost around 60 to 75 cents!
That’s in stark contrast to today’s $20+ cocktails at many San Francisco restaurants!
What It Would Cost Today
Before salivating too much over those insanely low prices, it’s important to remember that everything cost less back then, and people earned less as well.
Using the CPI based inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can see that the “cheap” $3 meal from 1943 would cost you $53.99 in today’s dollars.
That feels more like the San Francisco prices we’re used to!
Why So High?
If the meal depicted in this historical menu really cost almost $54 in today’s dollars, that’s pretty pricey! Why was it so expensive?
There are a few potential reasons. For one, Forbidden City was a swanky club. Just as today, club food can be extremely pricey relative to other nearby restaurants, since guests are paying for the ambiance.
Another major reason is the fact that, in 1943, World War 2 was still raging. Supply shortages may have contributed to the relatively high prices.
San Francisco was a navy town, so it’s also possible that restaurants were charging an arm and a leg for sailors out on leave.
The food system was also far less industrialized at the time. Food prices have increased with inflation, but the efficiency of factory farming has also helped to keep them from inflating too much. It’s possible that cost more in the 1940s relative to today because producing it was less mechanized.
The overall lesson, no matter the historical specifics? San Francisco has always been an expensive place to dine out. Yes, absolute prices were lower back then. Who wouldn’t want to pay $3 for a feast today?
But if you adjust those prices for inflation, 1943’s prices are pretty comparable to today’s. Short of inventing a time machine, you probably won’t see a $3 Chinese food feast in San Francisco any time soon.
Enjoyed this article? Here are more stories from the Bay Area Telegraph that you’ll love: