“One night, last week, there were three couples in here for dinner,” chuckled Mike Kelly, almost a bit incredulously. “They met here and got married and had kids. They wanted to eat here one last time before we close. Before we made the announcement, I didn’t always hear this stuff. Damn, I feel like Cupid!”
Love happened. Food happened. Life happened. So many stories. Thousands and thousands of them. All firmly rooted on a five acre property in uptown Nags Head.
It is almost easier to compile a list of what did not happen at Kelly’s Restaurant and Tavern during the 30-plus year lifespan of one of the Outer Banks most famous eateries, than attempt to chronicle what did transpire.
While easy to wax poetic about the non-stop dining, dancing and merrymaking that form the base of infinite memories. It is the hundreds of little love stories and the unbridled benevolence of the owner that has always been the driving force behind the big-number feeding machine, the drumming heartbeat that drew people to the dance floor and then kept them coming back.
Since June 18, 1985, the day founder Mike Kelly opened his doors to the public, Kelly’s Restaurant and Tavern has employed hundreds of full time and seasonal workers, hosted dignitaries and ditch diggers with Mike’s signature brand of coastal country hospitality, and contributed millions to the local economy in the form of tax dollars. Mike also personally funded countless personal emergencies and crises; to help others and his community is deeply inherent in his nature.
Now, it is time for the machine to downshift, just a bit, anyway. Kelly’s Restaurant and Tavern is closing their doors in early December and will not reopen for business. Food is still on the agenda for the property; Lidl’s grocery store will become the new inhabitant and will build their own, glass fronted, shop.
Having had the opportunity to work with owners Mike and wife Willo Kelly in many capacities over the decades, one thing is certain. If they say they will do it, it will get done, and more.
Art auctions, themed fundraisers, drag shows, Easter egg hunts, after-their-St. Patty-Parade hotdogs. Whatever the season, the occasion, the memorial, they shared. No effort was too small for them to lend a hand, cook up some food, donate a gift certificate, burn a tab or share their space for others to also ripple a good word and raise funds.
An Outer Banks landmark, both locally and across the state, Mike says he looks forward to several milestones as they transition and scale back their businesses, “I want a chance to enjoy them all,” he emphasized. “Our final night of food service will be December 2nd, and our final night for entertainment will be on the 9th.”
With the closing of the Nags Head location, Mike stressed that the catering operation will not be effected, nor will the operation of Mako’s or Pamlico Jack’s, both part of Kelly’s restaurant group. Efforts to consolidate services are underway, including how to buy those yummy sweet potato and county ham biscuits.
It is hard to imagine that this old friend, stomping grounds for so many, will not be around after the new year. A void will be created in the food and music landscape that will be hard to fill.
“Closing. It’s a little bit of everything. Bittersweet for sure, but we are going to make the most of it.”
We all will, Mike, we all will. Thanks for the everything.
Amy Gaw is a food entrepreneur who has eaten, cooked and written about food on the Outer Banks and surrounding areas for more than three decades. A clean food advocate with a focus on local seafood, Gaw is also a salt maker and the founder of Outer Banks SeaSalt.