That description was offered up by a visiting friend as we left the Little River waterfront on a recent weekday night, meandering back up Mineola Avenue to the traffic light that would, with a left turn on U.S. 17, carry us back to the noise and traffic of the Grand Strand proper.
That line, coming from a Georgia visitor who had never seen Little River before, was uncanny in its accuracy.
Little River, located about 20 miles up U.S. 17 from Myrtle Beach proper, is the kind of place it would be easy to lose yourself in. Just move into one of the comfortable homes on the quiet streets that branch off Mineola Avenue – the main drag to the town’s historic waterfront – and spend the rest of your days in peace in this fishing village, watching the fishing vessels and the casino boats come and go, eating local seafood and enjoying a cold one with other locals.
Little River is, according to historians, one of the oldest settlements in Horry County, with records of residents dating back to the early 18th Century. The place got its name from local Native American tribes who called its small river stream “Mineola,” which means “Little River.” Through the centuries, the village’s small protected harbor hosted everybody from shipwreck survivors to pirates, including rumored visits by the infamous Blackbeard.
Today, Little River is best known for its rejuvenated Blue Crab Festival, deep sea fishing charters and two huge casino boats, the Suncruz and M Casino, which take folks in a gaming mood out twice a day into international waters. However, we decided to explore the historic waterfront as part of the ongoing Weekly Surge Pub Crawl Series, seeing where Little River residents and visitors alike go to get their drink on.
What we found on the waterfront was a friendly mix of bars and bars within restaurants. Everywhere we visited had a laid-back vibe, with no dress codes and no attitudes. On any given afternoon or night, you’re liable to find slightly overdressed casino boat passengers in maxi-dresses and heels bellied up to a bar next to guys in T-shirts and shorts who still smell like the freshly caught fish they just fileted.
Two words of advice: The crowds at Little River watering holes skew a little older, with the average age in most places 30-plus. This doesn’t mean that younger people aren’t welcome, just keep any residual frat house attitude you have at home. Also, a few close around 9 or 9:30 p.m., much earlier than many places along the Grand Strand.
There is plenty of parking and easy walking access to all of the places we mention here. As always, if deciding to duplicate our pub crawl, select a designated driver or call a cab.
Now, to the waterfront...
The Pilot House, 4490 Mineola Avenue, Little River
It seems every neighborhood has its equivalent of the famous TV bar Cheers, and along the waterfront that role is filled more than adequately by The Pilot House. This is, very simply, a tried and true bar, the perfect place in Little River to pop into if you’re looking for a cold one after a long day of fishing – or before you head out on one of the huge casino boats that dock right across the street. Casino boat and restaurant workers from the waterfront, as well as a huge number of Little River locals, treat the place as a second home.
“This place really is like ‘Cheers’ – we know people’s names when they get here,” said bartender Stephanie Culley.
The Pilot House is one of the first places you encounter as you reach the end of Mineola Avenue near the waterfront. It’s housed in a weathered, white-painted building that is an area landmark, former home to a general store and other businesses before it began its life as a succession of watering holes such as The Other Bar and Fuzzy’s Corner. It’s been the Pilot House for about five years.
Weather permitting, the sides of the bar are open air to catch the area’s gentle breezes. You can belly up to a classic wooden bar at one end of the room or sit around high and low formica tables with simple, comfortable stools and chairs. There are a couple of picnic tables to sit around outside, plus side rooms with more tables and TVs, video games, a pinball machine and an electric dart board. Light blue Christmas lights hang around the inside and outside, and the walls are decorated with an eclectic mix of sports and marine memorabilia, fishing gear, NFL pennants and photographs.
All of the standard drink selections are available here, as well as some specialty drinks including Culley’s creation, the “Creamy Steph,” a concoction made with Pinnacle whipped vodka, and a “Straight Flush,” a drink mixing Crown Royal, peach schnapps and cranberry juice.
During happy hour, from 4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, everything is discounted 50 cents. This is also the perfect place for a cheap beer, with canned beer regularly $2 and bottles $2.50. There’s no real menu, but bar food such as cheese sticks and chicken wings are usually available.
Patio’s Waterfront Tiki Bar and Grill (behind the Suncruz casino boat terminal), 4495 Mineola Avenue, Little River
You hear the music from Patio’s long before you actually find the place, which is tucked down around the corner behind the main terminal of the Suncruz casino boat. A bright yellow sign along Mineola Drive points to the place, but many people don’t notice it and end up stumbling across Patio’s by accident as they head for the casino boat or explore the waterfront. That’s fine, because once you find it, you’re unlikely to forget this place, something of a hidden gem along the Waterway for people seeking out a laidback outdoor venue with something of a retro feel.
Owner Ken Ercole, who formerly ran the Little River Deli further inland, opened Patio’s roughly four years ago on property leased from Suncruz. He previously had both restaurants but now is focused completely on Patio’s.
“The best gift we have here is the breeze,” Ercole says, and he’s right. Patio’s position along the curve of the Waterway is practically perfect because an almost permanent breeze blows, making it feel about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the Waterfront area.
Patio’s offers dining and plenty of drinking in a casual, fun atmosphere. You can either sit on colorful high stools at an indoor bar flanked by classic tiki masks, or take up a position on one of the dozens of tables scattered invitingly around a three-level outdoor deck. Live music is offered daily on an outdoor stage, and runs the gamut from bluegrass to Motown and rock. This is especially a good place to hear some of your old favorites – on a recent night a solo singer offered up everything from Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” to Bobby Vinton’s “Mack the Knife.”
Karaoke is on tap every Tuesday night, and there’s weekly corn hole tournaments as well.
The crowd at Patio’s is mainly folks older than 35, and is about “80 percent local” on any given day, Ercole said. Casino boat patrons do wander over frequently, too, and it really doesn’t matter your age or what you’ve got on, because everybody is friendly.
Diners can nosh on a wide selection of salads, hot and cold deli and specialty sandwiches, wraps, quesadillas and sushi. Ercole proudly points out the $8.95 Reuben sandwich which was voted Best of the Beach a few years ago in the annual The Sun News poll.
As for drinks, you ask for it, Patio’s has it. You’ll find 31 bottled domestic and foreign beers, frozen drinks, mixed drinks and wine. Happy hour is daily from 4-7 p.m.
Fibber’s on the Waterfront, 4498 Water Front Avenue, Little River
We continue across the street to the waterfront proper, where bars and restaurants nestle together in close succession. Fibber’s on the Waterfront is a cozy, attractive restaurant nestled under a live oak tree estimated to be more than 300 years old, with comfortable indoor dining and great waterfront views from the back deck. Although the main focus here is the very good dining, which includes seafood, sandwiches and steaks, we include it in the Pub Crawl because of its proximity to the waterfront and its popularity with visitors.
Most people who visit Fibber’s and want to drink do so along with their meal. There is a small, comfortable wooden bar toward the back of the restaurant, and you can eat at the bar as well. Many people choose to enjoy their beer or wine sitting out on the back deck. Fibber’s also has a much larger bar at the front of the restaurant that is mainly used for special events and football viewing parties on Sundays during the season.
Fibber’s offers all the standard bar drinks, a good wine list, 12 beers on tap including Guinness, Yuengling and Smithwick’s, and 13 bottled beers.
Crab Catcher’s on the Waterfront, 4474 Waterfront Avenue, Little River
Crab Catcher’s has become a fixture in Little River since it opened in 1996, and it’s easy to see why once you enter the unassuming brown building on the water. Crab Catcher’s packs a lot of impact in a relatively small space, offering a full fresh seafood market, a very good seafood restaurant, and two nice bar spaces all in one place.
Because it’s a restaurant, of course the focus is on the food, and you can watch your meal being prepared if you want to because the inside bar allows direct view of the food prep area.
On a recent afternoon, bartender Casey Kuzmik – whose family founded the restaurant after moving here from Wisconsin -- was whipping up mixed drinks and grabbing beers for customers while waitresses shouted orders for fried seafood platters to the nearby cooks. It’s a busy atmosphere but not distracting. Music ranging from classic rock to the “Cupid Shuffle” was blaring from speakers indoor and out on a recent evening, people were shouting and laughing, customers and friends greeting each other.
You can enjoy your drinks either at the long, curving indoor bar where Kuzmik holds court, or at the large outdoor tiki bar, which includes comfortable seating around the bar or at round tables with umbrellas.
Crab Catcher’s offers 30 different beers and all the standard bar drinks you would expect, but Kuzmik said the establishment is especially known for its Bloody Mary, which captures the Little River seafood vibe with Old Bay seasoning along the rim, and added shrimp, celery and olives. Frozen drinks, especially margaritas, are also big sellers.
Captain Juel’s Hurricane Bar and Grill (located inside Captain Juel’s Hurricane Restaurant), 4499 Mineola Avenue, Little River
A painting hanging on the wall in the front of Captain Juel’s Hurricane Restaurant lets you know exactly how long this eatery has been a fixture in Little River. The car is a black 1940s-era sedan straight out of “The Godfather” and the building is much smaller, a wooden cube that has long since been added on to form the popular landmark waterfront seafood haunt that it is today. Capt Juel’s was founded in 1945 by Captain George Juel, and renovated in the mid-’70s by current owner Joe Robertson. It is probably best known for generations of Little River visitors as a great place to eat. Diners will tell you about their favorite seafood dishes or sandwich, and everyone praises the hummingbird cake, which has won awards. For Little River locals, however, the cozy bar tucked away along the side of the restaurant is their main stomping ground.
You can either belly up to the wide, metal-topped bar or gather with friends around several long tables with high-back chairs. Décor includes shelves lined with dozens and dozens of old beer draft pulls, nautical items, random street signs and other memorabilia.
Longtime bartender Deanna Robertson, Joe Robertson’s wife, will joyfully point out the regulars to you: the couples, the local waterfront workers, a man called “Mike” who walks around with a smile on his face, holding a beer and stopping at tables to talk to friends.
You’ll find all of the usual bar fare here, but regular customers say the hidden treasure at Captain Juel’s is Deanna Robertson’s skill with frozen drinks. Her most popular creations include things with names such as “Lava Flow,” made with Burnett’s white rum and strawberry pina colada mix, the “Nutty Monkey” (amaretto and banana-flavored mix) and the “Redneck Margarita,” which includes Firefly vodka and is served in a mason jar.
Key West Crazy Waterfront Restaurant and Bar, 4492 Waterfront Avenue, Little River
This bar and restaurant takes its namesake seriously, beginning with the bright tropical decorations that line the wooden walkway up to the front door and fill the walls and available space once you get inside. Key West Crazy is a laid-back, fun place that deftly combines both roles as bar and restaurant. Visitors can sit at the comfortable wooden bar inside or eat at inside tables, but many folks come to enjoy the beautiful view of the Waterway from the large outside deck that affords a close-up view of boats coming and going.
The main inside bar area is just big enough to accommodate afternoon and evening crowds but small enough to seem intimate even on a busy night. On a recent night, the inside was packed mainly with locals while visitors, including several large families, enjoyed their meals on the outside deck. Key West Crazy attracts a wide variety of people. On the night Surge visited, the local crowd – like several others we encountered in Little River – seemed to skew mainly to folks 35-plus, but the Key West atmosphere has enough of a party vibe to be enjoyable for younger visitors as well. The servers and bartenders are super friendly, even when things get busy.
Key West’s menu includes raw bar offerings including oysters and specialties such as bacon-wrapped scallops and crab cakes. A popular attraction is the brunch offered on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a “Build Your Own” Bloody Mary bar…perfect if you just love Bloody Marys or need one as a “hair of the dog” to get over the fun from the night before.
All of the usual bar offerings are available, but any place named after Key West is going to go heavy on the tropical drinks, and that’s true here. If you really want a drink that packs a punch, try the 24-ounce Fish Bowl Margarita, for $7, with $5 refills and you get to keep the fish bowl. Happy hour is from 4-7 p.m. daily, with $2.25 domestic beers, $5 wines, $3 well drinks and $2.50 Key West margaritas.
Key West Crazy has karaoke on Mondays and live entertainment the other six nights of the week. And for fun when the weather gets a little cooler, there’s also a cabana out front with a fire pit.