Tropical Concoctions: Best Tiki Bars in America
Photo By: Anjali M. PInto ©Lettuce Entertain You Inc
Photo By: Lara Ferroni ©2013 Lara Ferroni Photography
Photo By: Christopher DeVargas ©2013
Photo By: Anjali M. PInto ©Lettuce Entertain You Inc
Tiki bars are back. The modern-day renditions honor the bars that paved the way — Don’s Beachcomber Cafe and Trader Vic’s — with the same escapist environment, juicy recipes and funky decor. Whether mixing a mai tai, daiquiri or rum punch, bartenders of these contemporary Polynesian watering holes are using top-tier ingredients and playful drinking vessels to capture the spirit of eternal tropics.
Photo courtesy of Three Dots and a Dash
Lost Lake — Chicago
Modeled after the aesthetics of the original Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, this Chicago getaway is helmed by Chicago cocktail aficionado Paul McGee. Tropical vibes fill the space with banana leaf wallpaper, bartenders in Hawaiian-themed garb, and drinks dressed with fresh orchids and funky swizzle sticks. The cocktails, with colorful names like Curative Vibrations and Ruby May’s Second Surfin’ Bird, pack a punch, so the restaurant group opened Thank You, an American-Chinese takeout window that will deliver straight to the bar to help soak up those sweet spirits.
Hale Pele — Portland, Ore.
Add a few theatrics to the tiki experience with a visit to this Portland bar, where ordering a flaming Volcano Bowl cocktail cues a few of the booths to rumble. There is also an occasional thunder-and-lightening experience that happens throughout the evening, not to mention the colorful puffer fish lights that dot the ceiling. But despite all that, it’s the strong menu of drinks that keeps people coming back. Classics that pay homage to other famous tiki bars, and island-inspired small plates like Hawaiian bread and weebimbap, enhance the experience. Those worried about a few too many can order based on strength, thanks to a numbered legend by each drink.
Golden Tiki — Las Vegas
This tiki bar sticks to the classics when it comes to drinks and design, but the bar shows its true Vegas style with over-the-top accents, including a talking animatronic skeleton, a secret back door, video casino games, and a calendar packed with DJs and live entertainment. Also in typical fashion, the bar is open 24 hours a day, meaning it's tiki time anytime. The cocktails range from tried-and-true classics to creative selections like a classic Martinique Ti cocktail (rum, cane syrup, lime juice) made tableside. Barrel-aged and infused options are also available.
Three Dots and a Dash — Chicago
Named for a popular drink from Don the Beachcomber in the 1940s, this bar helped ignite Chicago’s passion for all things tiki. The space is like escaping to an underground Polynesian haven: Walking down the stairs, guests are instantly transported to an upscale tiki hut decorated with hand-carved tiki totems, bamboo walls and Hawaiian-print-clad servers. In addition to the classic, modern and large-format drinks — many sparked with flames, oozing smoke or garnished with creative touches like a banana dolphin — the bar offers rotating specials, nearly all served in namesake vessels, like porcelain sea anemones or giant treasure chests. There’s a concise menu of snacks like coconut shrimp as well.
Mother of Pearl — New York City
A bright and tropical escape in the heart of the East Village, this Manhattan tiki bar incorporates palm tree accents into most design elements. The cocktails borrow from classics in clever ways for drinks like the Tiki Peat, an almond-infused Scotch cocktail. Bring a group for punches. Food updates classic Polynesian, with an apple-sweet potato poke, edamame spring rolls and dessert steamed buns with coconut miso butter. Photo courtesy of Mother of Pearl
Go to: Mother of Pearl
Porco Lounge and Tiki Room — Cleveland
Tropical drinks and Polynesian vibes offer a welcome escape from the Midwest’s brutal winters. Many of the decorative accents were salvaged from the bars of yesteryear, including outrigger canoes and a tiki statue from Cleveland’s Kon Tiki (which closed in ’76), as well as chairs from Detroit’s Chin Tiki (which closed in ‘80). The drinks are equally classic and take no shortcuts. Bartenders schooled in each drink’s history make the libations with fresh juices and housemade syrups for customers.
Photo courtesy of Gus Chan
Smuggler’s Cove — San Francisco
No pirate could rival the rum affections of Martin Cate. Boasting a collection of nearly 600 rums — many of them rare and vintage — Cate has turned his Fillmore bar into one of the best destinations for rum in the world. Fittingly, entering the bar feels like walking into a scene of a pirate’s shipwreck, with dim lighting and nautical accents, including rope, wooden planks and barrels, throughout the intimate space. The menu is packed with more than 70 rum-filled concoctions, including the flaming Volcano and Scorpion bowls.
Photo courtesy of Allison Webber
Archipelago — Washington, D.C.
Fruity drinks aren't all frills at this U Street tiki temple. The bar comes from a team of bartenders who've handled the drinks programs at some of the city's best spots, including Rose's Luxury, Bar Pilar and locations from Jose Andres' ThinkFoodGroup. Here, spirited hula-girl lamps and Tom Selleck memorabilia set the scene for island-inspired cocktails made from fresh-squeezed juices and quality rums. Drinks are served in kitsch vessels (all available for sale) like large blue parrots and shrunken green heads, garnished in creative fashion with classic orchids, orange suns, bendy straws and banana octopi. As for the drinks themselves, there’s a frozen Pina Colada, a revamped Banana Daiquiri, a classic Mai Tai and originals like the Lonely Mermaid, a blend of rums, lemon and buttered pineapple syrup. The concise food menu includes sliders, Chinese-barbecue nachos and a Cubano.
Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 — New Orleans
If credit could be given to someone for helping to resurrect the tiki movement, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry would likely receive many nods. Berry has resurfaced many “lost” tiki drink recipes, created a tiki app and, most recently, opened one of New Orleans’ hottest bars, naturally one that specializes in tiki drinks. The menu features many of the unearthed recipes, including the blended cinnamon-rum Nui Nui, along with Berry’s own takes on the classics; there's also a menu of playful cuisine, including a dumpling burger, a mahi mahi banh mi and chocolate-dipped wontons.
Photo courtesy of Annene Kaye
False Idol — San Diego
Tucked within Craft & Commerce, this hidden tiki getaway, slated to open in 2016, has drawn from the best of tiki: the expertise of Martin Cate, the design of renowned tiki artist Bosko Hrnjak and the large tiki following of San Diego (the city home to the largest tiki festival, Tiki Oasis). Drinks will run the gamut from classics to originals, including the Coronado Luau special, made with aged pot still rum, aged column still rum, VSOP Armagnac, Grand Marnier, orgeat, and fresh orange and lemon juices.
Foundation — Milwaukee
When Milwaukeeans want a mai tai, they head for this tiny, kitsch-packed tropical oasis, where the classic orgeat-rum-juice concoction is the house specialty. The shelves are packed with an inspiring amount of nautical bounty, including scavenged shells, nets and an aquarium of fish. Many of the drinks — Pirate’s Grog, Polynesian — are served in funky tiki-style glasses that can be taken home at the end of the night. Food isn’t served in the bar, but guests can order in from elsewhere. Owner Don Nelson does an excellent job of planting a taste of the tropics in the Midwest, saying it’s his job to “bring the traditions of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic to the people of Milwaukee.”
Tiki Ti — Los Angeles
This half-century-old tiki bar has been passed down through one family since 1961. Ray Buhen was known as one of the greatest exotic-drink mixologists at Don the Beachcomber’s Cafe and elsewhere before opening Tiki Ti, which is now run by his son and grandson. One of the last standing tiki bars from back in the day, this bar is the place to sample sippers that taste almost identical to the originals. Sip on a Zombie — made with a secret combination of rums — while perusing the plethora of tropical tchotchkes from visitors throughout the years.