Bidding Farewell to Kelly’s Tavern

 In Food & Dining, OBX Locals

Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant – Mike Kelly walked into the Seafare Restaurant nearly 50 years ago looking for a summer job. When he was put in the kitchen in the salad prep and dessert area that first year, he never imagined that the restaurant business would become his destiny.

That was back in 1970, and today as the Outer Banks restaurateur prepares to close the doors of his much-loved Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant and Tavern, he took a few moments to reflect on those first days as a restaurateur.

Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant has served millions of guests since opening its doors on June 18, 1985.

“That first year, working in the kitchen at the Seafare, I enjoyed it. It kept me busy. I was given a meal a day, I had a job and a place to stay. The next year I worked in the front, starting as a busboy and then a server. I stayed in the business, got some management experience.”

Kelly stayed on at Seafare, eventually becoming headwaiter and assuming more and more management responsibilities.  In the fall of 1972, he stayed on year round, getting a second job building bulkheads. “Being a waiter was fun, and you had your days free,” Kelly recalls. “We would fish at night, surfed a little. It was slow paced back then, there wasn’t much going on – no place on the beach to get groceries or gas after 7:30, 8 at night. If you wanted a beer after work, you’d have to go over to Fred’s Tavern in Manteo.”

Through the years, Kelly’s has been a popular venue for live music and entertainment.

By the time Kelly had hit his late 20s, he began working at a Restaurant By George, becoming general manager over the course of five seasons. But in 1985, everything changed when the opportunity became available to buy what was then called J. Fleming Munde’s from Paul Shaver. “I didn’t have any money to speak of,” Kelly recalls. But with some creative financing and a hefty loan, he made it work.

June 18 marked the first day of Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant. “I didn’t have a partner. No one was stupid enough to go in on it with me.”

Kelly immediately changed the name and on the suggestion of Eddie Greene, longtime friend and former owner of The Christmas Shop, Kelly named it after himself. It worked well, and over the years became one of the Outer Banks most popular restaurants and nightspots.

The look and size of the restaurant changed over the years as Kelly made it his own. In 2005, Kelly doubled the size of the bar, created a space for catering and renovated the dining room and gift shop.

Hospitality has been Kelly’s mantra through the years, and not only has he been one of the most recognized businessmen on the Outer Banks, he’s also a community leader – sponsoring charity events, hosting fundraisers and putting on community events throughout the years. He’s also the founder of the Kelly’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which will celebrate its 29th year under Kelly’s wing this March. After that, Kelly said he’s hoping another group or business will take over.

“We started the parade as an effort to get the Outer Banks community together to enjoy each other,” said Kelly, pointing to the fact that there was no real community-gathering space on the island. “To date, we’ve put on the whole thing ourselves.”

Although the restaurant will be closing, Kelly’s door will continue to remain open with his expanding catering operation of Kelly’s OBX Catering.

But regardless of his personal successes – or his legacy – as Kelly prepares to close the doors at Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant and Tavern, he points to the hardworking staff as the reason for the restaurant’s success over the years.

Along with those delicious sweet potato biscuits, Kelly’s will always be remembered for the warm, hospitable memories it’s left in the hearts of the millions of guests who have passed through its doors over the last three decades.

And while the door may close on Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant and Tavern next month, Kelly’s door will continue to remain open with his expanding catering operation of Kelly’s OBX Catering, as well as popular restaurants Mako’s Beach Grill and Bar in Kill Devil Hills and Pamlico Jack’s Restaurant and Bar.♦

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