Among dive bars, the Fat Pelican has always ranked as an overachiever, a saloon so cluttered and ramshackle that its owner describes the decor as “Beach Trailer Park Chic.”
Patrons sit on sofas with mismatched cushions. They fetch their own beer out of the refrigerated trailer of an 18-wheel truck, a structure that forms the heart of the building. They heed this warning posted by the cash machine, “Beware of Alligators,” and this motto, scrawled on a pair of bull’s horns: “Beer is Love.”
Walk in the front door and you’ll see the water marks left behind by three hurricanes, none of them strong enough to rip the Fat Pelican off its suds-soaked moorings.
But for all its scruffy notoriety, the bar has just notched an honor more coveted than first place in its own Fourth of July bikini contest:
A spot on the list of diviest dive bars in America. No. 25 in your hearts. The only North Carolina watering hole to get the tip of a glass.
“I’m sure it won’t spoil us,” said Robin Nelms, bartender. “I even offered to put up another string of Christmas lights.”
The ranking, compiled by online travel-list-maker impulcity.com, places the Fat Pelican in the company of Santa’s Pub in Nashville, Snake & Jake’s in New Orleans and the Green Parrot in Key West, Fla., which features an all-ukulele orchestra.
Though the Pelican finished 25th out of 32, consider the establishments whittled out before the finals. Just down the road in Wilmington, the Barbary Coast certainly merits some sort of honorable mention. After all, a bank robber once hit the Bank of America down the street and spent his holdup loot buying rounds until patrons recognized his mugshot.
Although the Pelican doesn’t stay open until 2 a.m. every day for the sake of national recognition, and its staff doesn’t man the bar hoping to scoop up awards, this hat-tip lends the opportunity to share its glorious eccentricities.
• Its current owner, Danny McLaughlin, served two tours in Vietnam and survived both being shot and thrown out of a helicopter. Before buying the bar, he operated a rock-star catering service out of Greensboro, where he fed Van Halen and the Rolling Stones.
• Until last year, the Fat Pelican enjoyed the constant presence of the owner’s 120-pound Labrador retriever, named At-A-Boy. At one point, At-A-Boy’s name was placed on the ballot as a write-in candidate for mayor. “He got some votes,” Nelms confirmed. After he succumbed to cancer, the beloved pooch’s ashes were placed above the bar.
• Graffiti covers nearly every surface in the Fat Pelican. Some samples: “I love Aunt Carol,” and “Jeff, what should I do?” and “I’ve been to the gates of hell, but God sent me back here to watch over you.” Every surface is covered, that is, except for the hand-painted mural and other wall hangings. This request is posted on multiple index cards around the bar: “Do not write on artwork, please.”
• Though housed in a truck trailer, the beer selection at Fat Pelican is amazingly deep, offering hundreds of varieties in six-packs, from which a patron extracts one bottle at a time and hands it to the bartender for opening. Big Boss. Duck Rabbit. Old Rasputin. Curious Traveler. I selected National Bohemian in a can. It felt right.
I lived in Wilmington a decade ago and frequented this spot often in my childless days, when one is prone to do such things. I asked a few friends for Pelican stories. One of them recalled waiting out a hurricane in the shelter of the bar, then making out with a hotel manager. Another fondly remembered bringing his wife and her sister, asking for wine, and being handed a bottle that said “Cheap White Wine” on the label. The Pelican had no glasses, so the sisters passed the bottle.
To me, it’s especially praiseworthy when you find recognition without seeking it, when you set out to be yourself without compromise and find that somebody likes you for just that reason. We can all thank the Fat Pelican – at least, I do – for representing us as Tar Heels. For being without seeming. For loving universally, through beer.