Top 5 Beer Bars in ILM
With great difficulty, The PubScout takes on the task of naming his five favorite Wilmington-area places to drink a beer.
My publisher, Justin Williams, is a good guy. And most likely, in his past, a pitcher in the mold of Hoyt Wilhelm, the Baseball Hall of Fame knuckleballer.
Most often, he assigns me to cover brewpubs, beer bars and restaurants that serve good beer. (Hey, it’s a tough life, but somebody has to do it.) But I accept his assignments with alacrity and a great sense of anticipation. Finding new places with good beer is both fun and exciting.
But recently he “Hoyt Wilhelmed” me.
“Hey! Do you think you can draft me up a small article on Top Five places to have a brew in ILM?”
On the surface, that sounds like an easy task. Pick your five favorite places to quaff and tell your boss. And ILM has certainly exploded beer-wise since I did my first review of Front St. Brewery in 1996.
Yet there are problems with making those picks. Firstly, there are way more than five, especially in beer-centric ILM, where a new beer mecca seems to be born weekly. Secondly, enjoying a beer is predicated on a variety of factors: your mood at the moment, the season of the year, the activity that prompted you to have a beer, the food that may accompany it, and finally, the “vibe” of the place in which you’ll quaff it.
Let’s face it. If just drinking the beer was the goal, you could do it much more cheaply, not to mention much more safely, in the comfort of your own home. Going to a bar just to “watch a game on TV” is pointless, unless you do not have a TV of your own.
Bars and taverns have served as gathering places for convivial folks for more than five thousand years. The allure of the pub is probably as firmly ingrained in the human psyche as the allure of the flaming hearth, which strikes an internal chord in all of us calling us to its glow.
But most importantly, there are other people there with whom to interact. Even if it is just the bartender. Good bartenders matter, and not just because they can pour a good beer or make a good drink.
But let’s cut to the chase. The places below on my list have a few definitive “ingredients” that make me want to hoist a pint. The main ingredient is, of course, very subjective and elusive. It must have the right vibe. In decor/ambiance, beer selection, bartender and in the caliber of its clientele.
That last does not mean the patrons have to be high-falutin’, pretentious, celebrities or even well off. In fact, the best clientele (in my estimation, anyway) is comprised of average, regular folks, the hoi polloi, if you will, of which I consider myself a charter member.
If it serves good pub food, that’s even better, but the food is not a requirement.
With these parameters established, here’s my attempt to hit Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball.
The Fat Pelican in Carolina Beach
Back in the day, “phat” was a word young people used to describe something as highly attractive, desirable, excellent, gratifying or simply cool. The word has morphed, oddly, into “dope” for reasons I will never understand. But they mean the same thing. The Fat Pelican is a rather unique and fascinating pub with 400 beers in their cooler, and it could qualify as “phat” on all counts, especially the last four. The “highly attractive” description would likely apply only to a select group of visitors (like yours truly and friends) who appreciate darkly lit, labyrinthine rooms, a plethora of fascinating, seemingly unrelated bric-a-brac on the walls, seats that are anything but Bauhaus and a back yard that’s akin to an amusement park. The idea is to enter the rather nondescript front door, proceed to the massive cooler, select a beer (provided you can actually decide on just one) and bring it to a bartender like Faith for an accounting. Then find an appealing spot to quaff, all the while trying to read the walls, appreciate the eclectic artwork and determine why you are not only fascinated but also actually enjoying and reveling in a place like this.
More info: The Fat Pelican
Barbary Coast in Wilmington
There are no taps. There is no food. There is no glassware. And the entertainment is on the walls.
It’s barbaric, I tell you. And cool as hell.
At Barbary Coast, Wilmington’s oldest continually operating bar, the sign in the window reads: “We’ve Upped Our Standards … Up Yours!” With a slogan like that, one can only imagine what the Barbary Coast was like before they upped their standards. But venture in, and you won’t be disappointed. I asked barman Tyson how many beers are offered. He didn’t know. “Lots.” And if the Lupu-Luau Coconut IPA (Dogfish Head) is any indication of owner Eli Ellsworth’s beer sense, the Barbary Coast is not all that barbaric. And while you’re enjoying your beer, you have three choices: study the walls, talk to the barman or engage with other barbarians.
The walls hold some interesting bric-a-brac, and Ellsworth decides what gets put up and what does not. For example, the massive brown skeleton that appears to be screaming into the wall is an actual prop from the movie Mario Bros. Some gal got blasted away at the end and apparently wound up at the Barbary Coast. Another picture features Dennis Hopper, photographed during a scene from Blue Velvet. And Ellsworth recently scored a dragon’s head from the last Azalea Festival. The bar rail alone belongs in a museum. Just go.
More info: Barbary Coast on Facebook
Fox’s Hole in the Wall in Wilmington
For starters, this neat pub has only been open less than a year.
“How’s business?” I inquired of Rob, the barman/manager, who I recognized from his earlier gig at New Anthem.
“Pretty good,” he responded. “We’re getting lots of business on the weekends and a steady stream of customers during the day.”
As you might expect, The Hole in the Wall isn’t a capacious area. In fact, it reminded me a lot of The Cork and Fork on Market — comfortable and cozy — but not so small that you’d have to go outside to change your mind.
But it is certainly smaller than its sister pub — Rebellion — on Front Street, which I have reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed. Both are veteran-owned: Wes was in the Navy, and Pops is also a veteran. John — whose middle name is Fox — worked for ATF before becoming an owner/entrepreneur.
Still, it sports 19 beers, with three available on draft. I had one of those — an old reliable Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with the burger Rob suggested for me. Dubbed the Smashburger, it was absolutely phenomenal — every bit as good as those at that place down in Carolina Beach that earned a “4th-Best on the East Coast” from some famous Burger Meisters magazine.
There’s a nice patio out back for those who might want to enjoy their meals and brews outdoors in good weather. But to me, it defeats the purpose of eating in a place called the Hole in the Wall, which by the way, the owners actually found when doing some renovations.
With good food, a nice beer and drink list, an ambiance like the iconic pubs of New York, Philadelphia and Boston and a friendly atmosphere, The Hole in the Wall has great appeal to guys like me.
And hopefully to guys and gals like you.
If you go, ask for Rob and tell him The PubScout sent you.
Then run like hell.
More info: Fox’s Hole on Facebook
Rebellion in Wilmington
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, a tax protest, was probably not a major unit in your history class, but it probably should have been, as it lasted about three years.
Moreover, it tested the skills and mettle of the new nation’s first president, George Washington. By most historians’ accounts, Washington handled the insurrection very well, but few would have blamed him if he needed a few shots of “uisge” himself during and after it was concluded.
I mention the event only because Rebellion Pub on Front Street in Wilmington is named after — and honors the spirit of — that uprising as its raison d’être.
And a very unique place it is, too … cavernous, to be precise, with about 8,000 square feet of area, all dedicated to good food, good drink and good service.
I’m not a fan of whiskey, but beer is another story, and Rebellion sports 27 taps. One third of them are local N.C. breweries, too.
Food-wise, Manager Chuck Archer allowed that their burgers rate very highly with the clientele, the demographic of which is somewhere between the ages of 25 and 50. They have a burger grinder on premises, and they smoke all their meat right there as well. In their own repertoire, the Chef’s Original probably is the best seller among fans of dry rub, and the Double-Dipped appeals to the devotees of wet rub.
Not surprising at all that Rebellion and Fox’s Hole in the Wall are siblings.
More info: Rebellion NC
Pour Taproom in Wilmington
It’s not a case of “saving the best for last” to insert Pour Taproom into this list, although a place that makes you feel as though you’re at your own private beer festival certainly deserves special plaudits.
Owner Brian Ballard built the place located in the old Murchison bank building on Front Street pretty much with his bare hands. And he’s since acquired Ironclad Brewing over on Second Street, where his high standards for service and quality are replicated. Where he finds the time to run both places is beyond me. But whenever he’s in Pour, I can count on a table visit to shoot the breeze and chew the fat.
But more about that beer festival concept. Pour has more than 65 taps of some of the best beers you can find, and the whole second floor of this beautiful building houses the Carolina Beer offerings. That allows the wrist-banded customer to pour his or her own beers from a wide variety of sources. Ballard’s computers keep tabs on your intake, though, and if you consume more than 32 ounces, an assistant will come to you to ensure you’re not face down on the floor. As long as you aren’t they’ll grant you a dispensation for more pours — within reason.
Ballard has also upped the food game in Pour considerably, so much so that a group of friends can snag a really good lunch and good beers to go along with it.
Pour serves wine, too, in case wine folks infiltrate your beer-nut group. And don’t forget to check out the men’s loo.
More info: Pour Taproom