A Two Part Adventure into San Francisco Area’s Tiki Scene
by Wade Sheeler
We were somewhere around Bakersfield on the edge of the 5 when the rum began to take hold. With only 72 hours between rental car lift-off and my first day on the new job, we had to hit maximum capacity Bay Area Tiki. We could’ve gone the LA to SF route via the 1, which is one of the most stunning drives in the US, but we would’ve never covered the territory needed, and let’s face it – at our age, more than 8 hours in a car is no bueno for the sacroiliac. So it was pedal to the metal all the way North on the 5, aka No Man’s Land.
I won’t belabor just how creaky this Tiki lover is, but I will say the 5 1/2 to 6 hour drive that most “claim” it takes to get to SF from LA is an Urban Myth. I need leg stretchin’, pee-breakin’ , Powerball buyin’ time, so we pulled into the Clift hotel near Union Square on the 8 hour mark.
We barely paid attention to the faux-W Hotel décor, tossing our bags in our room, tearing our carry-ons open and pulling out our Tiki wear, when I realized the entire room was filled with floor to ceiling mirrors. And I’m not just talkin’ the bed area – I mean the bathroom too. If we weren’t in such a hurry I would’ve left that Millennial Selfie High-End Hostel pronto, cause last thing I want to see when I stumble into my room at 4 AM is just how Kapu I look in the “rawr.” (That’s Tiki-Talk for Taboo!)
The wife looked super stylin’ in her new tiki dress, a spaghetti strap affair with a cute little jacket to keep the chilly bay area breeze off the shoulders, and I was in a Mac Daddy black bowling shirt with a vertical swatch of a Wahine-style tiki design down one side.
With my Wazed up iPhone ready to guide us, we had a definite plan of attack while zigging and zagging around the Sunday night traffic. On tap for tonight was Oakland and surrounding areas, tomorrow night would be SF Tiki spots. Since this was a Sunday night, though, even the bars would be closing earlier than usual, plus it was Easter Sunday (we’re such heathens), so we knew the odds were against us.
The first lesson we learned is Waze and San Fran are not bosom buddies. My Waze girl kept changing course and telling us we had arrived when we hadn’t. It’s probably the very tall buildings that threw the ever patient voice off, so we were losing precious drinking time as we backtracked more than once.
No matter, we hit our first spot in our Bay Area Tiki Crawl a little after 8. It was one of our main targets, called Forbidden Island. We were in the middle of a residential neighborhood, so we had no idea what was in store beyond the very mid-century modern exterior.
Inside, it was a Tiki Lover’s paradise – the long bar was housed under a grass-style faux roof, much like Tiki No (our favorite North Hollywood Tiki Bar) and the colored “fishing float lights” and “blowfish lamps” were the perfect décor compliment. And unlike most tiki bars, the music was exactly right-on-the- money: exotica, surf and twist kitsch. Usually you have two music options in a tiki bar; pre-set music or a juke box (and of course, the rare times a DJ finds their way in). The problem with a juke box is you and your fellow imbibers are forced to listen to whatever music genre the guy with a buck plays; and if the bar has not curated the box well, you could be listening to anything from Led Zepplin to Ariana Grande, which may be fine in other realms, but does not go well with your Zombie.
Forbidden Island has solved that problem by curating a perfect mix of period correct music, and the juke box is free. You’re basically choosing what songs from their large library is played, and at no cost to you!
Another great reason to visit Forbidden Island is there are no pre-made juices or sweet and sour; they squeeze their own lemons, limes and oranges. There is nothing like the flavor of a fresh fruit base for your tiki drink, it makes the difference between a Mediocre Mai Tai and an out of this world safari sensation!
Being Easter, the bar had a special holiday concoction, “In Vino Veritas,” (latin for “in wine, truth” – and ain’t THAT the truth?!) which I ordered before I even found my way into a cozy booth – the cocktail was a mix of fresh squeezed orange & lime juices, all spice liqueur, dark rum and a house made red wine syrup. Very unusual and a great way to start off the night. It came with an Easter egg for all who imbibed, that housed a cocktail coupon inside. Mine was for a free draft beer, but we had to stick with mixed drinks, and so I passed my coupon off to a very nice couple from Fresno.
My partner in crime ordered a Tropical Itch, the Island’s tribute to Harry Yee of Waikiki’s Hawaiian Village Hotel fame. Passion fruit takes center stage with a momentous mix of rum and bourbon. I’m not a bourbon man, yet the Island somehow gets just enough in there for that Good Ol’ Boy tang without it overpowering the drink. The best part, though besides the awesome mug was the souvenir backscratcher it comes with – what better way to tame that exotic itch?
As we considered just how many drinks we were going to throw back at our very first stop, we noticed the clientele was decidedly hip, but authentic. By that I mean, 30s to 40s, sporting more than enough tiki attire, but also everyday street clothes that promised they weren’t trying too hard to look hipster. The mood was chill, comfortable and fun.
One of our goals was to snag a Tiki Mug from each place, and Forbidden Island’s did not disappoint, especially ’cause it was filled with the legendary place’s namesake, a Forbidden Island. Their recipe is a closely guarded secret mix of liqueurs and spices — but its no secret that you feel Ohana when sipping.
Okay, we were feeling the power of Pele, and decided to Uber it from Forbidden Island, which was a stroke of genius on our part. (At this point, based on the level of alcohol in my system, everything felt like a stroke of genius – especially since someone else was doing the driving!)
We reached location number two – and were we vexed?! Trader Vic’s is arguably ground-zero for the tiki inspired drinks, food and themes. In fact, the first TV was established right there in Oakland. So to find the place closed early – (mind you, it is Easter Sunday) was a major buzzkill. The wife and I have been to other Vic’s, and we have our issues with them (their Mai Tai is not my favorite – I know – sacrilege! ) but a pilgrimage to the Bay Area is not complete without a drop into Trader Vic’s and the Tonga Room in the Fairmont hotel (more about that later!)
Vexed and slipping into sobriety fast, we re-Ubered our driver and headed over to Longitude, a decidedly upscale, Tommy Bahama-ish “take” on the tiki bar, in downtown Oakland. The neighborhood may have been sketchy (we were almost forcibly evicted post haste out of our Uber) but this place is definitely Island chic, with a generous toe dipped into the tribal arts. Spacious and comfortable, Longitude doesn’t just offer mixed cocktails, but a generous mix of pupus and (strangely) pub food as well, all created by Bay Area Tiki Goddess Suzanne Long.
After talking with a really cool server, he was able to educate us on Longitude’s mission statement, as he also waxed poetic on how impactful watching Long create her cocktail menu was on his passion for mixology.
Open only a year and a half, Longitude focuses not just on tiki drinks, but a really well curated list of rum and whiskeys of the world. The menu is pretty exhausting – so coming late at night as we did gave us the undivided attention of our bartender, since Yelp tells us the place gets pretty busy during the week.
The drinks reflect not just the tiki world, but the sailor life with a side journey through Treasure Island. Beyond the usual standards, they have the Shrunken Skull which conjures images of all sorts of voodoo-rific shenanagins with a mix of rich, tart, house-made grenadine, two rums and a touch of cinnamon and the Black Orchid, which Mixologist Long took from her days at Forbidden Island and features a flambéed rum cordial, Angostura 7 rum, tart citrus and an edible orchid. It is vastly different from most overly sweet or bitter tiki cocktails.
We were both feeling so very mellow and toasty, when our favorite bartender reminded us we needed their tiki mug, and Longitude’s embraces the recent love of Rum Barreled drinks with the Queen’s Barrel. Three rums, sparkling citrus and passion fruit juice, poured into this MAMMOTH barrel mug.
This is one big, beautiful mug and one disturbingly deep drink!
Now most people our age would’ve taken that Uber back to the hotel at this late hour, but we would not be denied, especially after the Trader Vic’s kerfuffle, so “Forward, Jeeves!” we two souses shouted to our driver (his real name was Pete, BTW) and we landed at our fourth watering hole of the night, Kona Club.
Drive too fast past this neighborhood gem in the Piedmont District and you may miss it, except for the retro lit green sign in the window, announcing Tiki Bar! On closer inspection, it sports a very apropos Kona Club sign affixed on the roof. We could hear laughter and a searing guitar emanating from within, and upon tripping over the threshold (my fault, not their’s) we discovered a very cozy, yet surprisingly spacious “joint.” The music (yes, I’m very Ob/Com about music) was definitely not “on theme” but that was ok, the last thing you want is carbon copy tiki joints stamped out infinitum. We were listening to classic and alt-rock, which fit in well with the neighborhood vibe and the pool table in the back. Then, during my first drink, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You,” tore through the dark, and I was in Hula Heaven! (if you ever play Screamin’ Jay, you’re A-OK in my book, much to my wife’s chagrin.)
The walls, floor to ceiling, are covered in bamboo and tapa cloth which gives Kona Club major authenticity points. Several little nooks and cubbies are spread throughout, and I will admit this is one of the darker bars, so if you’re looking for a late night tet-a-tet, well, lets just say, you could do worse. Not that I know what that really entails, mind you.
Kona Club pushes their House Specialty as the Chi-Chi, so how could I say no? Theirs goes one step beyond the pineapple/coconut juice and vodka combo of blended goodness, since they add equal parts Macadamia liqueur, which ups the alcohol quotient and the flavor. These are easy to knock you on your ass after 2…or 3. (I take the Fifth on how many I actually downed.)
The wife enjoyed their Navy Grog, a tiki staple for those not into the sweet drinks. Kona Club’s follows the standard Spicy, not too sweet combo and garnish with a sugary swizzle stick. This is a perfect addition, since the first sip is a little tart. So as you chat and stir, the crystalized stick begins to defrost into your glass, and a satisfying grog that will make your head a fog is born.
As we sipped into catatonia, I tried to figure out if the lifesize hula girl’s hips that seemingly gyrated was for real or the hallucinogenic affects of my drinking finally taking hold. Upon closer examination, they were revolving, much like a dashboard hula girl, expanded to full size like Ant Man! The result was something strangely eerie and arousing at the same time. Don’t judge, it was last call.
We stumbled into our Uber, and were either whisked back to our hotel, or an alley where we were unceremoniously “rolled.” All I know is we woke up the next morning with our clothes half off and our wallets and purses strewn about. I guess that means: success!
Join us for the second installment of our Bay Area Tiki Safari where we sample the San Francisco tiki scene. Is there stomach pumping in our future? Check us out next week to find out!