From music to munchies, Downtown paying off for nightlife trio

Jason Hunnicut is one of three owners of 1904 Music Hall and the adjoining Spliff's Gastropub, opening this fall.

Jason Hunnicutt is one of three owners of 1904 Music Hall and the adjoining Spliff’s Gastropub, opening this fall. Photo by DVI.

From 2008 to 2011, Jason Hunnicutt got a glimpse of what Downtown Jacksonville’s entertainment district could be. A member of the band Greenhouse Lounge, he toured the Southeast playing in the region’s top music scenes.

“We were seeing all of those awesome cities and awesome music scenes,” he said. “Jax needed this.”

When he left the band to settle down, he decided to call Downtown home, living the life of a Jacksonville urbanite. His “rosy eyes” for Downtown – thanks to a steadfast love for the urban core – spurred Hunnicutt and his former bandmate, Duane De Castro, to start a Jacksonville version of those Southeast music scenes they admired.

Hunnicutt and De Castro soon recruited friend Brian Eisele to join their new business venture: a live music venue with impressive bands and an equally impressive tap list.

“We all love music and beer, thus the concept was born,” Hunnicutt said. Now they just needed a location. After looking at spots in Springfield, San Marco and Riverside, De Castro serendipitously stumbled upon a historic building on Ocean Street with a “for rent” sign posted.

Interior of 1904 Music Hall. Photo provided by the venue.

Interior of 1904 Music Hall. Photo provided by the venue.

Turns out, that building – constructed in 1904 – was the perfect venue for their concept with its large open floorplan, back patio space and front sidewalk on a major thoroughfare Downtown. And as luck would have it, the spot also inspired their venue’s name: 1904 Music Hall.

“I love knowing that from 1880 to 1965 or so this city was a thriving metropolis,” De Castro said. “The idea that we are part of that history and are in the process of making our own history is a great honor.”

The first year was slow-going, Hunnicutt admits. Their focus was simply building relationships with bands, fellow business owners and the community at large.

“I looked at it as an investment in not just my future but my friends’ future,” Hunnicutt said. As 2012 progressed, they booked bigger bands and found 1904 Music Hall listed on larger show rosters.

“It kind of snowballed from there,” Hunnicutt said. “We thought, ‘OK, where are going to be here awhile.’”

In 2014, that realization sparked an interest in the spot next door. The first idea was simply to expand the music hall. They went back and forth with concepts for months, ultimately determining Downtown needed another lunch, dinner and, especially, a late-night eats spot.

Co-owner Jason Hunnicut and Spliff's mural.

Co-owner Jason Hunnicutt and Spliff’s mural.

Build-out started earlier this year on Spliff’s Gastropub, which is scheduled to open in just a few weeks after final inspections are scheduled and completed.

“I am very excited about the concept we’ve put together,” De Castro said. “I think the atmosphere of Spliff’s will be a unique and fun experience for our guests. I am proud we are going to be the first true gastropub in Downtown Jacksonville.”

Featuring original brick walls and reclaimed wood paneling, Spliff’s will have craft beers, international wines and sake, a Southern comfort menu (with vegan options), table seating, bar-like window seating overlooking Ocean Street, and beer-garden access out back. Menu highlights include 20 flavors of macaroni and cheese, baked chicken wings and West-Coast-style tri-tip roast beef, with the full menu under the direction of Daniel Johnson, a classically trained chef from San Diego.

“We are a big believer of putting aces in their places,” Hunnicutt said.

Speaking of aces in their places, you could say the same for De Castro, Eisele and Hunnicutt in relation to Downtown. As urban-core business owners soon opening another business next door, the trio took a risk on Downtown, helping cultivate a district of nightlife pioneers in what is now known as The Elbow.

“The development is everywhere,” Eisele said. “New businesses are recognizing the potential in Downtown and are looking for chances to contribute. People are coming through our doors and often ask us: “When did Downtown become so cool?”

View from the entrance of Spliff's.

View from the entrance of Spliff’s. Photo by DVI.

DeCastro agrees.

“I am excited for the future of Downtown,” he said. “We have all seen the progress over the last few years, and I believe we have already reached the tipping point. Major players are starting to take notice, and once the Cowford Chophouse is open, I think we will see an explosion of new bars and restaurants on The Elbow, which will forever change the city landscape.”

When can you get your first bites of Spliff’s Gastropub? Hunnicutt said the announcement will come soon to its official website and Facebook page. Tonight, Aug. 27, the trio is hosting a fundraiser to ease the build-out costs burden. (Enter the raffle for a chance to win free food for an entire year at Spliff’s!)

If you need a summary on why you should check out this new hangout opening soon Downtown, we’ll let Eisele do the honors: “Good food, good beers, and great people! Another reason to check out The Elbow.”