Nothing says intense like a hand carved ceiling mermaid.
Sometimes finding the right dive bar is about uncovering an overlooked gem in a strip mall in Ohio next to an aging Applebee’s. And sometimes it’s about simply going where the gravity demands it, and such is the case for The Fat Pelican, hardly a best kept secret and rather a celebrated, loved, revered dive bar on the North Carolina coast.
So revered is the Fat Pelican that at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic when the son of the bar’s owner posted a public note asking for help to keep the bar afloat, the Carolina Beach & Wilmington community came through with $13,000 in a single night to keep the doors open. The love for the bar is unsurprising after about 5 seconds inside, or better yet, about one second in the outside graveyard slash living tribute to defunct local business signage.
Nestled on a stretch of ocean-adjacent road leading down the Carolina Beach coast, the neighborhood is every bit the local beach vibe, a string of bars, restaurants, pint-sized convenience stores and what feels like thousands of timeshares, condos and stilted housed owned by the North Carolina rich. The atmosphere proves perfect for a dive bar like The Fat Pelican, a “small town” vibe mixed with beach living in an area that could use a dose of unassuming day drinking.
And the space isn’t without some innovation. Rather than do something tired and old-fashioned like, say, serve patrons their alcohol, The Fat Pelican operates an extensive walk-in beer cooler where visitors grab what they want, pay for it and are then trusted to figure it out from there. The selection is extensive, the cooler opening up into a small bar area in the front room of the building that provides only the tip of the iceberg in seating options.
Inside, all manner of what feel like haphazardly sourced chairs, tables and decorated create a dense and varied seating environment, all lit with Christmas lights. There are beach chairs, foot stools, wooden tables and some kind of sign, painting or decoration on seemingly every inch of the inside space. Commonplace Bud Light neon signs coexist with hand carved mermaids and what looks to be a sign from an old-timey steamship. The bar feels like some kind of Highlights-style hidden picture search that someone drunkenly concocted after a few walk-in cooler beers.
Somehow, the visual stimulation gets even more intense outside, where a sprawling backyard (a more appropriate term than a back patio) houses an untold number of nooks and crannies for sequestered drinking surrounded by signage that seems to have come from every failed or refreshed business within 20 miles. The Coastal Carolina Eye Clinic’s one-time sign has found its final resting place at The Fat Pelican, alongside local luminaries like Wilmington Air and Maxine’s Barbershop (try to catch them all).
Of course, a beached ship commands the most attention in the outdoor space, an elevated platform that on this reviewer’s visit looked to be shaping up into a DJ booth, a trivia night, a karaoke setup or perhaps some dive bar combination of the three. Corrugated metal wall coverings, cornhole boards, Jersey Mike’s-branded surfboards, there is really no end to the Island of Dr. Moreau-style accumulation of misfit toys repurposed into friendly drinking companions.
Any more description of the interior or exterior spaces would risk serving as a spoiler as simply taking it all in is probably the biggest joy that comes from visiting The Fat Pelican. To do so with a beer in hand is kind of a bonus as is the claw game in the back room just in case a day of drinking has sparked the thrill for a stuffed animal-focused game of chance (strong possibility).
It’s hard to find a flaw in The Fat Pelican, the perfect mix of beach, beer and dive housing what feels like the densest, most interesting collection of North Carolina signage outside of some American Pickers-style rural barn. The walk-in cooler, besides offering a welcome blast of cool air, adds a little theater to the show that surrounds it, creating a completely unique North Carolina dive bar experience.