Be sure to duck on your way in.
This reviewer is always a little wary of a dive bar with an opening year that starts with a 2. The most authentic dive bars in a given city are so often some of the area’s oldest drinking establishments that it can be easy to look down on a place with a shorter history. Jacksonville dive bar Shantytown Pub is an excellent example of why that kind of attitude can squander opportunities to visit great dives that know exactly who they are and the customers they cater to.
Opened in 2006, Shantytown Pub is certainly an intentional dive bar. Its location, its building, its artwork, its adjacent outdoor space, it all lines up to a purposeful dive bar aesthetic. But notably, drink prices are reasonable and the food options aren’t outlandish, meaning that Shantytown Pub hasn’t fallen into the trap of using dive bar surroundings to justify very non-dive bar pricing. In fact, on this reviewer’s last visit, happy hour meant two local craft beers for $6. Total. This is a good thing.
Driving up, Shantytown Pub has nailed dive bar curb appeal, if there is such a thing. Colorful murals line the building at every angle, expansive and wandering palettes along the two longest walls, compact and frenetic around the dive bar’s front door. The short, very square-looking structure is, by design, a stark and colorful contrast to the more sparely populated area that surrounds it. The juxtaposition between the gray empty lots lining the road to the building and bright orange paint amid bold block lettering proclaiming the name of the bar above the front door is extreme.
Inside, an already narrow space is further split into two even narrower rooms stretching lengthwise along the square interior. The front room is divvied up about half and half between a long line of seats and the bar itself, where a small food prep area shares space with beer taps and a sticker-lined refrigerator. And if those cramped quarters haven’t triggered your claustrophobia yet (in a good way, honest), even the ceiling is brought a little closer to the drinking action with an extensive array of tap handles extending downward from the wood beams above.
The space’s second room gives way to a small stage that features bands on occasion, itself surrounded by high tables and low benches that dot the remaining square footage. The mural game outside turns into an array of individual pieces inside, the secondary room in particular feeling like the kind of place that might be made much, much worse or much, much better under the influence of a select set of substances. The swordfish slash pirate ship in particular is an eye catcher, the perfect complement to the red panda painting just a few feet away.
On this reviewer’s last visit, a pair of locals were navigating a little day drinking at the bar while one of the two bartenders (a luxury in a small dive bar these days) set about creating the one-off subs sold throughout the day to fuel the day’s drinking festivities. The short bar up front and cramped quarters serve to direct conversation toward this focal point, meaning the kind of Jacksonville dive bar engagement that makes a place like this hum. And it goes without saying that any Jacksonville dive bar with the foresight to hang a Billy Dee Williams Colt 45 light from the wall is well worth the visit.
The adjacent parking lot feels like a natural and organic extension of the space inside, an explosion of artwork that ties everything together. Picnic tables, strewn about plastic patio chairs, colorful fencing, graffiti-covered walls, a food truck inscribed with the word ‘Nunchux,’ the vibe inside very much spills out into the surrounding space, a welcome complement to the limited seating available inside.
Shantytown Pub is, ultimately, a tiny oasis of a dive bar north of Jackonsville’s downtown core that may be intentional in design but authentic in its presentation and operation. Despite a resume that only dates back to 2006, Shantytown Pub and its location, its artwork, its footprint, its use of outdoor space and its dive bar-friendly beer pricing make this place a proper Jacksonville dive bar.