One Love: Main Street’s Next Bar Is a Lyrical Ode to Jamaican Rum, Food and Music

“So, will Jammyland be a restaurant with a whip-smart beverage program or a cocktail bar with a killer food menu?” My opening salvo elicited a long, silent, searching stare between co-owners Danielle Crouch and Allan Katz. It was late April 2017, and although the DTLV venue’s overall concept had been in place since 2009, and with construction on the former garage already underway directly across the street from Makers & Finders, I might as well have asked the reggae lovers to pick a favorite Bob Marley song.

The answer is that Jammyland Cocktail Bar & Reggae Kitchen will eventually be both, and it will likely be many things to many people: a lively day-drinking spot with people-watching galore; a quiet midweek coworking backyard; a business lunch; a first date; an after-work drink. Whatever it becomes for you, Jammyland will soft-open February 23 with just the bar program, and food will be added in stages shortly after, including brunch by summertime.

Partners in business and in life, Crouch and Katz have extensive and illustrious backgrounds in food and beverage, working separately and later together as bartenders, bar managers and consultants since the early 2000s. Their careers began on opposite coasts and became entwined in Manhattan before they relocated together to Crouch’s home state of California. For the last two years, however, the pair have made Las Vegas the base of West Coast operations for their consulting business, Lucky Sunday. Their summer 2016 opening cocktail program at Here’s Looking at You in Los Angeles brought critical acclaim from Food & Wine and the Los Angeles Times. And it is here in Las Vegas that they, along with business partners Jen Len (Jammyland’s assistant general manager; a recent Los Angeles transplant) and John “Bubba” Grayer (executive chef; a bit of a nomad, most recently from New Orleans), will build their dream house.

Danielle Crouch, Allan Katz and Jen Len with a cutout of John “Bubba” Grayer.

Well, it’s more of a shack, really. A rum shack, to be specific. Named in honor of the reggae record store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that New York native Katz haunted as a tween, Jammyland will be a mixture of Irish shebeen (a sort of speakeasy) and Jamaican rum shack. It’s also a love letter to New York, where Crouch and Katz first met and to the multicultural neighborhoods where Katz grew up.

This is almost a second coming for Jammyland, which Crouch and Katz nearly opened in New York in 2010—however, the timing was wrong. And maybe even the place. Plus, everyone on the team had something else that needed to happen first.

“Is This Love”

Just a year into his career teaching English and social studies to middle and high schoolers, Katz pivoted to follow his bartending passion. “It was kind of heartbreaking to see the state of public education at the time,” he says. “I had a moment where I was like, ‘I don’t feel good about what I do here, and every night I facilitate all kinds of vice at a bar, and I feel so much better about that, and I love doing that. So I’m going to go do that for a while.’ A while turned into 17 years.”

A chance interaction with a regular guest at his bar led to Katz being hired by “King Cocktail,” Dale DeGroff, at Manhattan’s Jovia in 2006. From there, he worked at the New York outpost of London’s famous Soho House before Las Vegas’ own Tony Abou-Ganim recruited him in 2008 to open the short-lived Bar Milano, also in Manhattan, as bar manager.

Bar Milano is also where Katz met Crouch.

Born and raised in Napa, California, Crouch had worked in hospitality since high school and gravitated naturally toward the beverage side of the industry. In fact, it’s possible that her knowledge of the recipe for the Negroni—Abou-Ganim’s favorite drink—may have helped secure her spot on Abou-Ganim’s team at Boa Steakhouse in The Forum Shops at Caesars in 2004. “That was the key to the kingdom,” she says. She remained there for four years until Abou-Ganim asked her to move east and join the Bar Milano staff.

In New York, Katz quickly moved on and up, becoming beverage director for Fatty Crew Hospitality Group, which included chef Zakary Pelaccio’s Fatty Crab, Fatty ’Cue and Cabrito, “the first little agave temple in the Village,” Katz says. When Bar Milano closed, Crouch went to Julie Reiner’s legendary Clover Club and also worked part time at Cabrito. Through Fatty Crew, the pair combined forces and futures with Chef Grayer. “After two years, the corporate climate in [Fatty Crew] was really changing, and we felt very ready to do our own thing.” That “thing” quickly turned into the original 2009 business plan for Jammyland, so named in homage to the record store that had closed back in 2008 as well as the trio’s shared love of all things reggae and Jamaica: rum, food and music.

“Jamaica was [touched] by so many different cultures, and they all left a culinary imprint there, whether it was Southeast Asians, Indians, the Irish, Africans, French, English,” Katz says. “There’s this amazing natural amalgamation of influences that adds up to be Jamaican food. Most of the Jamaican food that you’ll ever see is jerk everything, salt cod, ackee and plantains. Those things are delicious, but when you start scratching the surface, there’s so much to explore. We were also following our teenage dream of giving ourselves a place where we could go to work and listen to reggae all day, all night.”

But Jammyland 1.0 was not to be—not yet, anyway. Crouch, still bartending at Clover Club, longed to return to California. Well, Katz simply wouldn’t be without her, and Grayer, a wanderlusting former Marine, wanted to see even more of the world. By early 2010, all plans for the project had been shelved while Katz opened San Diego’s Noble Experiment with Sam Ross (Attaboy in NYC, The Dorsey in The Venetian and Rosina in The Palazzo). Finding San Diego a tad “too sleepy,” the couple were reunited in L.A., where they dug in deep for the next five years—he at Cedd Moses’ rum-centric Caña and she at The Tar Pit till 2011 when she joined Katz at Caña.

“Concrete Jungle”

In mid-2015, when it was at long last time to revive plans for Jammyland, it’s no surprise that Las Vegas was a front-runner. Having witnessed the transformation of Downtown Los Angeles, Crouch and Katz had a vision for their rum shack–cum-shebeen to fit into the burgeoning DTLV scene. “We’ve been lucky enough to work all kinds of awesome cocktail events all around the country and really get a feel for the different developing downtown cocktail scenes, the culinary scenes and the kind of energy that gets infused in a place like the Arts District,” Katz says. “By the time we were talking to the city [of Las Vegas] about the process, we knew there was something really special here. We were like, ‘Wow! You’ve centralized all the departments that people need to open up a small business in one place and you’re basically doing concierge services for the whole process?’ That was it for us. We were like, ‘OK, Vegas, we want to be on this team.’”

Using a bit of Google Earth stalking to find the desired garage’s owner, they secured the lease and received the keys to 1121 South Main Street in summer 2016. At exactly the same time, they got the opportunity to road-test every aspect of their new independence by opening L.A.’s Here’s Looking at You (HLAY), a “stylish and clever” spot from chef Jonathan Whitener and GM/partner Lien Ta. There, each season’s menu follows a single concept. “Origin Story,” for example, introduced the personalities behind the restaurant as cocktails inspired by their favorite spirits, flavors and adventures. The notion immediately captivated the drinking public and HLAY was welcomed as one of the city’s best new entries, with a stellar bar program serving some of L.A.’s most compelling cocktails. It was also quickly recognized nationally as one of the most notable new bars in America. And by year’s end, critics hailed HLAY as “the ultimate neighborhood restaurant,” and L.A.’s best new bar with the year’s best cocktail. In 2017, Food & Wine called it one of the Top 10 Restaurants of the Year. The duo accomplished all of this while traveling to and from Las Vegas to keep tabs on Jammyland’s construction, and they still oversee the HLAY program to this day.

“Positive Vibration”

Of Jammyland’s roughly 6,500 square feet, the majority of the venue and seating is outdoors. From Main Street, you’ll pass through a corrugated metal pony-wall to reach the front patio seating, some of it dog-friendly. (The gates are also wide enough to allow cars and food trucks to drive in for big events.) The front patio will offer table service, while the back patio will have more fast-casual-style service. Art is important to the couple, who make up one-half of the board of the charitable Art Beyond the Glass series, so you’ll first encounter murals by Jerry Misko and Jim Mahfood celebrating the unsung heroes and history of Jamaican music both inside and out back. The front patio is also where you’ll find the stage for live reggae music of every stripe and eventually a little bodega-style retail kiosk.

Inside the building, a large C-shaped bar holds four bartending wells and seats 20. A drink rail separates the bar area from inside table seating in a not-overly-kitschy environment that plays up existing structural elements and other found items.

On the draft system, a tropical IPA collaboration with Hop Nuts will be added down the line; naturally, the bar will serve Red Stripe.

Food-wise, the team calls their concept “authentically nontraditional island dining,” a cheeky turn of phrase that essentially means that while the dishes coming from Grayer’s kitchen and a backyard smoker will have all the fiery and funky flavors of Jamaica, they may be presented in more familiar packages, such as a sandwich, an entrée salad or a bowl. Composed plates and curries will speak to the seasons, with heartier items in the winter and snackier items in the summer. Expect vegetarian, vegan, organic and even an ital (Rastafarian-style vegetarian) option, as well.

“Stir It Up”

OK, now, about that rum.

I’m so happy for the coming of the casual cocktail again,” Crouch says. “I don’t have time to put on a dress every night and go drink important cocktails and have unimportant conversation while looking amazing and feeling uncomfortable. I don’t have time for that. Maybe rum has just always been there for us. When you go on vacation, what are you probably drinking? Rum.” To that end, expect at least 15 cocktails, many naturally favoring rum of all kinds, but especially in the English-style distilling tradition (Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados and Bermuda among them). The balance checks other critical boxes with classic staples such as whisk(e)y and gin.

“I started [working] in a Mexican place,” Crouch continues, “so I fully explored agave. And my first love was bourbon, really. But rum, as a spirit, has a lot more breadth than other spirits, and I love that. I appreciate that there are rums for cognac drinkers, tequila drinkers and whiskey drinkers, some really great sipping rums and agricole rums. It’s been a really fun spirit to explore.”

Late-night hours will cater to industry workers in what Katz calls the “laborhood.” The most current schedule calls for Jammyland to operate Wednesday through Monday, 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. “It’s really important to us that we be an everyday, everybody bar,” Katz says. “We want to hang out with you after your shift. It’s the best time of day, when everybody’s got a good sweat going and they’re coming off the adrenaline high of banging out that shift and getting out that door. We want to be there, and we want to be able to feed you something delicious.”

Like its namesake, Jammyland begins and ends with music. “The thing that we love about rum—the fact that there’s such breadth and variation to the category—is the thing that we love about reggae,” Katz says. “A lot of folks are like, ‘Oh, reggae’s OK, but it’s repetitive.’ And people say the same thing about rum, like, ‘Oh, rum’s OK, but I don’t like sweet drinks.’ No, there’s so much more to it: ska, rocksteady, roots, dancehall. … There’s funky reggae, there’s the distinctly American, Southern California beach town version of it, the Sublime acolytes. There’s raggamuffin, which is very hip-hop-influenced. So, yeah, Jammyland’s soundtrack has more than 2,500 cuts, and I’ve sequenced every single one of them. Hey, I’ve had, like, a decade to do this!”

Jammyland Cocktail Bar & Reggae Kitchen is slated to soft-open on Friday, February 23.

Vegas Seven