Highway 304 winds 20 miles from the Pamlico County Courthouse, in Bayboro, to the county’s most remote wetlands, in Lowland. Directly in between is the town of Vandemere, home of the Flamingo Grill.
Just two steps off the highway, the white stucco Flamingo Grill smells of fried shrimp. It serves takeout only. The kitchen, which is the only room, buzzes with exhaust fans, two loud fryers and a four-burner gas grill. There is a service counter, refrigerated glass case for sodas and a high window-mounted air conditioner that requires the reach of a broom handle to turn it on.
A banner under the service counter boasts, “The BEST food on Hwy 304!!!!”
They are also the only food on Highway 304. Alex Credle opened the grill in a building owned by his grandfather on May 14th.
“After the storms, Grandfather let the building go,” says Alex, referring to the many hurricanes that have hit the county, most recently Hurricane Florence in 2018. He is sitting at the counter wearing a newly printed Flamingo Grill T-shirt. It is just past lunchtime; they have had 11 orders so far today. The building was originally erected as a grocery store in 1900. In the 60s, it became a tavern. When Alex’s grandfather George Credle bought it, the tavern was called the Purple Onion. George renamed it the Flamingo Lounge in the 1980s, Alex says, because the flamingo is “a pretty bird.”
Alex began renovating the building in 2019 without knowing what he might do with it. “People kept stopping by to talk, asking for something to drink,” he says. It gave him an idea. “Right now, you have to go all the way to Bayboro to find anything to eat,” he says. “I used to go to Florida, and they serve their local catch everywhere. It made me think, here we are, we have the freshest stuff right here.” Maybe the Flamingo could serve fish caught in Pamlico.
“When I was 12, I used to pick beer bottles off the tables,” says Alex, reminiscing about his grandfather’s lounge. He is 40 now. George Credle, 76, a well-known local entrepreneur, still runs a salvage yard; sells, fixes and rents cars; and is often seen driving a tow truck. “My grandma would come home after working the fryer, and I would say, ‘Grandma, you stink,’” Alex says. “Now she tells me, ‘You stink.’”
As we talk, a car speeds by the building so fast that the magnetic screen hung in the front doorway shakes. Cheryl Jones, Alex’s cousin, and Betty Barber, his aunt, are busy frying onion rings and buffalo wings for a call-in order.
“It was the only party spot for forever,” continues Alex. “People had a really good time—it’s probably responsible for half the population around here.” He laughs and looks back at the women cooking behind him. They nod and arch their eyebrows over their glasses.
Cheryl, known as Cuz, is the brain behind the recipe of their most popular item, the Flamingo Burger, which is topped with homemade chili and a spicy secret sauce. They also serve shrimp burgers, chicken wings, a pork chop sandwich and fresh fish that come in off the boats. They are open Wednesday through Thursday, from 11:30 am until 9 pm and Friday and Saturday, from 11:30 am until 11 pm.
On a good day they do about 40 meals a day. On a bad day, like today, 15 meals.
“End of the month it gets a bit rough, people’s money starts to run out,” Alex says. He lives most of the week in Raleigh, where he has a party-bus service. He travels here Wednesdays and Thursdays to oversee the business.
Half of the building still hasn’t been renovated. Alex hopes to turn it into a dining room for the grill eventually: “A place where people can have a beer and watch the game. You know, keep things homegrown.” But opening a restaurant is difficult in the best of times, and doing so during the pandemic was especially hard. “Covid took a lot out of me,” Alex says.
Still, he’s hopeful the Flamingo Grill can become as popular as the Flamingo Lounge once was.
“This place went a little backwards,” he says, referring to the years the lounge was in disrepair. “So I’m doing my part to get it going.”
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