This Ramshackle Dive Bar Is a Beach Bum's Paradise
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because beer really is love.
By Daniel Malloy
It’s kitschy and redneck-y, haphazard and ever-changing, but make no mistake: This ramshackle beach bar is an art installation in itself.
The Fat Pelican, of Carolina Beach, North Carolina, has been recognized as one of the country’s top dive bars, but it’s not a below-ground dive in the traditional sense. “Dive” is an attitude, perhaps best summarized in the bar’s decidedly non-gastropub food selection. Atop the menu: Hot Pockets.
If you’re coming to the Fat Pelican, you’re probably coming for beer, even though there’s wine available. The place’s slogan is “Beer is Love,” and it brings the goods with 400 different varieties on offer. They are stashed in a converted 18-wheeler refrigerator truck, where patrons can walk in and serve themselves.
Customers started bringing things in — a tiger, a bull and a gator mailbox.
After a few minutes of decision paralysis, I grab a Pilsner brewed a couple hours up the road in Durham. It’s thirst-quenching relief from the afternoon heat when I step out onto the sandy patio. The crowd is welcoming, including gregarious regular Amanda Grim, who plays tour guide. The outdoor space is adorned with wooden furniture designed and built by the Fat Pelican’s owner, Danny McLaughlin. A beached boat, the SS Emma, provides additional seating next to an area for playing cornhole. McLaughlin started decorating the bar with yard sale purchases, and then customers started bringing things in — a tiger, a bull and a gator mailbox, which some rogue has graffitied with the word “vagina.” A giant octopus was acquired from a shuttered seafood joint.
The Fat Pelican launched in 1982 as a wine and cheese store, but when McLaughlin took it over more than 20 years ago, he salvaged the place by remaking it into a bar and stocking the truck with craft beer — though he’s never worked behind the bar himself. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the watering hole thrummed with tourists and locals, with spillover traffic from a beach music festival. It’s the kind of place where longtime residents can suck on brews and cigarettes as they debate the effectiveness of the town council, while visiting beachgoers gawk at the surroundings. Children mingle, though they are not welcome at night.
“It’s very mellow,” Grim says. “You can be anyone in the world and be here.” Her advice: Comfortable shoes are a must — navigating the uneven brick floor inside would be hazardous even for the sober. A patchwork of old signs and advertisements line the walls, defaced by Sharpie scrawls with varying levels of penmanship. Photos are pasted up to memorialize good times past. Board games are available for those who want to mix competition with their drinking.
If you’re not looking for it, the Fat Pelican can be easy to miss among the motels and restaurants on the island’s main road. But it’s part of the fabric of this funky little beach town. The bar’s dog, At-A-Boy, mounted a write-in campaign for mayor a few years back that earned 35 votes. After the black Lab died in 2013, his ashes were placed in a little wooden box behind the bar, another addition to the art display.