Ten years ago your good beer choices in Jacksonville were restricted. You had a choice of going to any neighborhood bar and slugging back a bottle of watered-down, tasteless brews brought to you by the mega-breweries, or you could go to River City Brewing Company on the south bank for something a little better and definitely local brewed. Back then Ragtime was open in Atlantic Beach and Seven Bridges had beers on Southside Boulevard – but, they are corporately owned by the same company that runs the Gordon-Biersch restaurants. So, I say again, good beer was very hard to find in Jacksonville.
Fast forward to 2012 and your choices have literally exploded. There are literally scores of restaurants around the First Coast serving quality craft beer both on tap and by the bottle from the beaches to the west side. Nothing illustrates this explosion of craft beer goodness than the King Street district of Riverside/Avondale. This once blighted and crime-ridden area of Jacksonville was the home of corner drug dealers and prostitutes. But, over the past few years the area has been transformed by an influx of beer-centric, restaurant, and entertainment venues. It is no longer a scary area of town, it is now an area some are dubbing; The King Street Brewery District.
The area’s transition from drug-infested Hell hole to bustling entertainment district seemed to hit high gear when in 2005 Kickback’s appeared and a new standard was set for the area. At a recent city Land Use and Zoning committee hearing, the owners of Kickback’s emphasized the struggles they endured during the first months of the establishment being open. Steve Flores, one the owners, recounted tales of chasing drug dealers down alleys, over fences, and through streets to rid them from near his property.
Today Kickback’s serves as an anchor for the busy district. Most evenings you will find the establishment buzzing with conversation and full of patrons enjoying some of the 84 beers on tap and hundreds of bottled beers available. The food brings the crowds in too, though. With an eclectic mix of comfort foods (they have Ramen Noodles, Spaghetti O’s, and corn dogs on the menu along with more traditional fare) and pub fare all served with a home-cooked feel. But, it is not just the food and drink that pack the crowds into this King Street institution. People come for the ambience, the sense of belonging, the knowledgeable staff, and the cheerful attitudes.
On weekends, Kickback’s is a hive of activity and, at times, a challenge to get into. The packed interior is filled with a cacophony of voices all talking, laughing, and enjoying the weekend. Navigation from one side of the pub to the other is a bit of a challenge too, since the tables are so close together and always full. Around midnight, an influx of partiers arrives from nearby restaurants and breweries. Most are only open until 11:00 or midnight at the latest. And since the King Street community of workers, residents, and regulars is so tight knit, a new round of hellos, handshakes, and squeals of delight at seeing old friends follows the influx.
The interior of Kickback’s is a shrine to the marketing of the world’s favorite beverage, beer. The walls are lined with empty beer bottles hanging from eye-bolts and strung on rods. Other walls are festooned with metal beer signs, rock memorabilia, and a large chalkboard listing all the beers currently available on tap. From the rafters, hundreds of tap handles hang from threads embedded in the exposed wooden beams. The doors are heavy, carved wood reminiscent of the type of doors you would find in Europe’s oldest Public Houses. The bar is packed with the 84 tap handles and spigots that have made Kickback’s a favorite among beer freaks.
At any time one could enter into the beer Nirvana on King Street and find several hard-to-find brews such as HopSlam from Bell’s or Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. You may find an interesting import like Schneider Weisse Tap X Mein Nelson Sauvin, a special edition brew created in Germany for ABT Cafes in Holland. Or, since Flores is a Belgian beer enthusiast, you might an exceptional Belgian like Kasteel Cuvee Du Chateau.
In the near future the owners of Kickback’s, Flores and business partner Ed Salem, are planning on building a new restaurant next door to the existing establishment. The new place will sport a Steam Punk theme and share an expanded kitchen with Kickback’s. In addition the restaurant, named Gooslepipes and Guttyworks, will feature a separate Belgian basement bar and beer storage catacombs.
In the long history of exceptional beer bas and pubs that have come and gone in the city of Jacksonville, Kickback’s has all the signs of being one with real staying power. Flores and Salem have built something special, a magical place that makes patrons feel welcome. If the enthusiastic crowds that pack into it are indication, the new restaurant will do just as well. We sure hope so.
Until next time,
Long Live the Brewers!