A Beachin’ Good Time
Bar Marley brings island vibes to Old North Knox
Looking for a beach getaway without having to take a road trip? Try Bar Marley, located just off Broadway on Stone Street. The ever-evolving bar/restaurant/coffeeshop/music venue has one mission: to donate profits to the “unrelenting free-market preservation of land in fragile environments,” such as rainforests and tropical reefs.
A for-profit business with a nonprofit feel, the concept is a project of Caleb Boyers, who owns rental properties around the Fourth and Gill and Old North Knox neighborhoods. The income earned from these properties allowed him (after paying employees and essential expenses) to take the residuals from Bar Marley and buy a plot of land in the forests of Bocas del Toro in Panama, close to the Costa Rican border. He says that Bocas del Toro is an area close to his heart, as he spent a few months there in his early 20s working on a fishing boat and seeing how the constant construction was impacting the local ecosystem.
“Now they’re selling the land off to developers,” Boyers says. “We’re talking about tropical dry forest that’s still pristine – exactly like it was since the dawn of time – and coral reefs there that are still pristine … I want to have a chunk of land, and I want it to leave no trace and I want to have backpackers and travelers from all over the place to be able to come and see that pristine forest.”
Boyers says that the idea for Bar Marley to be a means to achieve that goal started small with a search for the perfect property. He wanted Bar Marley to be an authentic backpacker’s hostel like the ones he’d seen in Central America. Although he grew up exploring the beaches of Florida, Boyers really fell in love with the island way of life while working on the fishing boat around the Caribbean and Central America.
“The booming, vivid life down there, the celebratory attitude of everyone, the food, the flavors, the colors in the reef, foliage and birds … it’s like, at the equator, life is booming. [I was] trying to find that,” Boyers says.
He found the perfect spot – an expansive, lofty warehouse typical of Old North Knox. He says the big, metal doors reminded him of a building in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and he quickly got to work making it an island paradise. The temperate feel is saturated in the décor, from hammocks in the doorways to a literal sandy beach outside. The tall structure is painted with tropical scenes and decorated with palm trees, and reggae music fills the space that flows from inside to outside seamlessly in the warmer weather. Boyers is inspired not only by the beach, but also by the attitudes of the island people he encountered on his travels. He says that they always were celebrating despite leading lives that weren’t always easy.
“A lot of the people who live here don’t get a chance to get to the beach, or some that do drive hours and hours to go to the beach,” Boyers says. “So, I was like, ‘Why not bring a little bit of the beach here?’ And just all the stuff that goes with that … the sort of subconscious aspects of it, like the vivid amount of light that’s there, the celebratory attitude even though life can be tough sometimes.”
Bar Marley has hosted a wide range of celebratory events, from concerts to fire-spinning groups. Guests can play volleyball on the beach or hang out inside by a dock-like stage while different acts perform. Some of the events are a little wackier; sometimes a small rock climbing wall is in one corner, other times it’s a Mario Kart setup. When the weather is nice, a large Slip ‘N Slide will be placed outside, with flashing lights surrounding it. Often, they have promotions where certain costumes win the wearers free admission.
The food and cocktail menus emit the same island flair as the décor and events. Boyers’ favorite entree, the Madagascar Wave Roll, is his own recipe. It features apricots, smoked pork and Jamaican curry, but it’s presented like sushi. He says he likes the look and care that goes into sushi and tries to emulate that with their Caribbean fusion meals. The drink menu, as colorful as it is boozy, features the Mezcal Mule and the Blueberry Steeldrum, as well as an array of beer.
Looking forward, Boyers plans to open similar establishments in other locales in order to help further his forest preservation efforts.
“I plan on doing this in other cities, either Atlanta or New Orleans,” he says. “Again, places that are a distance from the beach and cities at a stage of growth with newer ways of thinking are coming in. For a long time, this was just underground; people who knew about it knew about it, and we were on Facebook some.”
Facebook is still the best way to know what’s going on at Bar Marley, Boyers says. He’s started a Jamaican culture immersion night every week in March; You can message the business page for more information.