By Jon O’Neill
It started as a hot dog stand in 1957, on a seriously remote part of Daytona Beach.
That hot dog stand has morphed into today’s Ocean Deck -- one of Northeast Florida’s most iconic live music venues, a magnet-like attraction that draws in visitors and locals alike year round.
They come for the food, they come for the fun and they come for the tunes, which play every night of the week.
“And then there’s that,” said London native Duncan Williams, pointing at the white sand of Daytona Beach, just a few feet from where he sat scarfing down a burger.
The Ocean Deck is everything a Florida bar should be: reggae and rock playing constantly, along with good food, stiff drinks and a staff that seems to have as much fun as the customers do.
Being right on the beach – literally – doesn’t hurt its tropical cred, either.
“With the zoning the way it is these days, you couldn’t build a place like this,” said Matt Fuerst, one of three owners of the Deck. “To be physically on the beach like we are just wouldn’t be possible now.”
Fuerste, along with Vernon Kuftic and Ken Bots, bought the Ocean Deck from former owner Dick Keough, who decided to hang it up in 2012.
Keough, who still comes to the Deck once a week to hang out with his friends, bought the hot dog stand in 1980 and, realizing what he had, set out to create a tropical hot spot.
He beefed up the food and drink selections, but he knew beachgoers also wanted entertainment. So he focused on music, bringing in live acts, eventually featuring them seven nights a week.
Reggae and rock, sometimes with a twang, were the staples that kept the Ocean Deck beat. It worked then. It still works today.
“You’d be mad to change it,” said Williams, who first visited the Deck in the mid-90s and makes a point to come back whenever he can. “You always have a good time here. And you always know you’re in Florida.”
At 5 p.m. on a recent Saturday afternoon, the Deck was in full stride. In the main bar downstairs, Stormin Norman (aka as Vernon Kuftic’s brother) was leading a boisterous karoke session, which featured a number of his followers – all of whom could actually sing.
Upstairs, in the dining room, things were a tad quieter, but that’s the idea of course. The room was added several years ago as a mellow option to the rambunctious downstairs space.
By 6 p.m., most of the upstairs tables were full of diners enjoying the food and the view of the beach as the last rays of fall sunshine faded away. By 9 p.m., the dining room was brimming, while the downstairs bar was packed and rocking. The headliner was C*Posse, sort of the Deck’s house band, and their particular brand of crossover reggae-rock had the dance floor jammed.
Many of the revelers ended up just outside the bar, dancing in the sand. And that’s exactly what the Ocean Deck folks like to see.
It’s one reason the Deck’s musical offerings – although they can run the gamut – lean toward a reggae-rock fusion.
“It has a universal appeal,” said Brooke Chamberlain, who works as a server and also helps arrange music bookings at the Deck. “The vibe is good and it gets people smiling.”
Chamberlain, who commutes an hour each way to her job, wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. She said the camaraderie among the staff is something visitors pick up on right away.
“They see us having a great time, and it carries over,” she said. “It’s hard to be in a bad mood when everyone around you is having fun.”
The music plays a huge role there. In addition to C*Posse, Morning Buzz usually holds court at the Deck on Monday nights, playing popular classic rock covers.
Tuesday nights have been all about Orange Avenue, with the rising Daytona Beach Indie rockers taking the stage about 9:30 p.m. and playing what MTV describes as “energetic indie rock/pop with a polished major label sound.”
Kuftic said the bar is always looking to bring in bigger acts, and it also hosts a number of special events, including the “Bonfire Beach Bash,” which this year featured Supervillians and “snow” on the beach to go along with drink and food specials and plenty of toes in the sand dancing.
“We want to be the kind of place that locals love and that visitors never forget,” Kuftic said. “When people come here, we want them to feel like they’re among friends. We welcome them and entertain them with the kind of view they can’t get anywhere else.”
The Ocean Deck
127 S. Ocean Ave. in Daytona Beach
Meanwhile, just up the road in Jacksonville, there’s another type of venue making a musical mark – and aiming to alter the direction of the city’s downtown.
Since it opened in 2011, Burro Bar has developed a reputation for bringing in cutting edge live acts that span musical genres from rock to rap and anything in between.
Half-jokingly referred to as a “craft beer dive with a live music problem,” Burro Bar recently renovated its funky spot at 100 East Adams St. and instituted a “no smoking” policy so patrons can fully enjoy the taste and smell of their high-end suds.
While Burro Bar is all about the music, marketing and promotions manager Amanda Johnson said there also is a larger mission on tap.
“We’re trying to build up this entertainment district,” she said, referring to the area known as the Elbow. “There are a lot of myths about downtown Jacksonville and we’re trying to change that. This is a safe and fun place to come, and it’s been growing and growing.”
Burro Bar was born after veteran bar owner Ian Ranne partnered with Chris Williams and Jack Twachtman to the London Bridge. Fellow Shantytown Pub owner Marianne Purcell and bartender Matt Hume also joined to complete the ownership team. When it comes to musical acts, it’s pretty much anything goes at Burro, Johnson said.
“We work with a group of promoters and we book who we like,” she said.
That includes bands with sounds ranging from punk to metal to alternative, and hip-hop shows thrown in on Thursday nights.
“We want to do what it takes to bring people into the city,” Johnson said.
100 East Adams St., Jacksonville
Other Jax spots to consider in the quest for live music:
1528 Hendricks Ave., Jacksonville
Described as “intimate, albeit slightly grungy,” Jack Rabbits showcases an eclectic range of local and sometimes national acts.
And further down the coast…
Ponte Vedra Concert Hall
1050 A1A North, Ponte Vedra Beach
This is a real deal concert hall, a performing arts theater with capacity for 900 people standing, more than 400 seated. It’s the spot to see major league talent, and recent performers have included Goo Goo Dolls, the B-52s, Aaron Neville and Blues Traveler.
St. Augustine Amphitheater
1340C A1A South, St. Augustine
This outdoor amphitheater, which routinely draws top shelf acts such as Robert Plant and Steve Miller, was built in 1965 to mark the city’s 400th anniversary. Renovated between 2002 and 2007, the amphitheater can now hold more than 4,000 spectators and also features a series of walking trails on the grounds, which are nestled in a section of Anatasia State Park.
Bar With No Name
16 S. Castillo Dr., St. Augustine
Just across from the famous Castillo de San Marcos fort, this downtown haunt offers great bayfront views and eclectic live music. It's a local favorite that tourists will want to discover.
Stogies Cigar Bar (aka Stogies Jazz Club and Listening Room)
36 Charlotte St., St. Augustine
Owner Jeff Holleran has been refining this concept since 1996, and Stogies now bills itself as a place where friends can gather to enjoy good cigars, fine wine and excellent music in one laid-back spot.
124 Charlotte St., St. Augustine
Pretty much an icon in an iconic city, Tradewinds is all about old school fun and plenty of live music. Look closely at who's on stage -- rumor has it some ex-Molly Hatchet band members like to play there every week.
Johnny D's Beach Bar And Grill
1005 N Ocean Shore Blvd, Flagler Beach
Billed as a 'great neighborhood dive bar,' Johnny D's features plenty of food to go along with nightly entertainment. Another 'locals' spot visitors will enjoy exploring.
Golden Lion Café
501 N. Oceanshore Blvd., Flagler Beach
A bonafide Florida beach bar that's been packing them in since 1993, Golden Lion features a full menu, nightly music and that whole 'chillin-by-the-beach' vibe.
The Bank & Blues Club
701 Main St., Daytona Beach
Yes, it did actually used to be a bank -- but now it bills itself as a hard-rockin night club with a vault full of top-notch rock and blues bands.
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