LITTLE RIVER, S.C. - The Grand Strand may very well have more bars per capita than any region of the U.S. This is an unscientific statement, as no formal survey has been conducted to back this assertion. However, the great philosopher David Hume advocated the concept of empiricism, or the theory that experience is the source of all knowledge.
As one who has experienced the glut of taverns and pubs throughout the greater Myrtle Beach area, I take refuge in Hume's edicts. So when a watering hole is voted "Best Bar" in the Grand Strand by the local newspaper's golf magazine, there's nothing left for this golf writer to do other than sample its wares.
The Varsity Club was an unsuspecting "Best" of nominee, and an even more humble winner by the looks of the place. Set in a humble, smallish house-like structure off Highway 17, the bar has no other pretense than to advertise its world-beater, 75-cent Natural Light special (which is in effect during all hours of operation).
Inside, the atmosphere is roadside casino meets poor-man's ESPN Sports Zone. On this night, just an hour before kickoff of Monday Night Football, the place is basically empty, leading one to wonder if the voters in the Myrtle Beach Golf Magazine poll were absentee. The upside of this desertion, of course, was that there were three televisions for every patron (the Varsity Club boasts 37 boob tubes, in all) and my first 75-cent Natural Light made it to the table with warp speed.
As I eased into the ice cold pint of watered down brew, my thoughts turned to food. Any sports bar worth its weight in fried food has to have respectable chicken wings, so I ordered up a dozen of the Varsity Club's medium. About five minutes later, the wings arrived piping hot and tougher than the cover of a water logged golf ball. I asked the waitress to throw them in the oven a bit longer. She looked at me with a puzzled expression, but carried through with the request. A full Natural Light later, the wings returned sans the pink glow they had a few minutes earlier. This time around, they were tolerable.
Next up was the hamburger, which if you don't watch it, will come topped with mayo a la a Tully Burger north of the border. In addition to the standard lettuce and tomato fixings, the Varsity Club also lets you choose from bacon, mushrooms and sautéed onions - a nice touch. Unlike the wings, the burger was awesome right out of the gate. The ½ pound chunk of meat was cooked to perfection, juicy, and draped in artery-clogging bacon.
The rest of the menu is, you guessed it, traditional sports bar fare. Wings, sandwiches and a couple salads grace the menu, but one can't help but think that a pizza offering here or there would help bring in an extra starving patron or two. For those who can't wait to knock off work and belly up, there's a $4.95 lunch special. And if the thought of a $20 steak makes you want to cringe, Varsity Club has an $8.95 prime rib special on Saturday nights. You could even bring a date.
As the night wore on, a few more stragglers wondered in for 75-cent beers and rubber chicken wings, but all in all, the Varsity Club is hardly the stuff of "Best Bar" legend. I wouldn't be able to sleep, however, until I was sure that this was the best that Little River had to offer. I sauntered across the street to the Big League Sports Bar where much to my surprise, there was yet another 75-cent Natural Light special, leading me to believe that folks in this neck of the Strand must suffer from one omnipresent hangover.
Monday Night Football was alive and well at Big League, a refreshing change of pace from the somewhat subdued Varsity Club. Mullet sporting football fans were clad in Philadelphia Eagles jerseys, the staff held raffles each quarter and food specials were a-plenty. One such deal was an all-you-can eat riblet special, which based on the patrons on hand, must have put the fear of God in pigs from Georgetown to North Myrtle Beach.
To complete the sports bar tour, I visited Pat and Mikes Irish Pub and Jimmigans just over the border in Brunswick County, N.C. The verdict: take a tee out of your golf bag, toss it in the air, and wander off in whatever direction it points. All four of these sports bars are essentially interchangeable and are capable of doing what sports bars do best - serving up cold, cheap bear and food that tastes good after a few cold, cheap beers.
For the best ambiance outside of Murrells Inlet, head to the historic Little River Waterfront, perched on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway. You'll find a smattering of local joints serving up the region's specialties, blue crab and Grouper. The River Side Tavern is set in an old house and is easily one of the best "locals" joints in the North Strand. Chances are, the guy that caught your Grouper dinner is sitting right next to you. Crab Catchers serves up excellent (you guessed it) crab dishes, but the restaurant's double-decker hamburger is the stuff of legend. For lunch, try the Fisherman's Hide-A-Way Restaurant, where you can choose from over 10 omelettes served with grits or homefries, toast or two pancakes for under $5. Back out on the highway, there are a number of good Italian eateries to choose from. Umbertos at Coquina Harbor and Chianti's in the old territorial house on the side of the road are two solid selections.
September 26, 2002