One for the Road: Vintage Tiki Palaces
Fifty years ago, if you wanted a special night out, you may well have headed to a tiki bar. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, following the lead of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, tropical joints popped up all over the country, offering fruity rum cocktails (many of them with flaming garnishes) and pu pu platters of faux-Polynesian and -Chinese food. That’s not to mention exotic décor and entertainments from indoor rainstorms to hula girls.
Though tiki is again trendy today, these original palaces are a dying breed. However, there are some still around, which are definitely worth a visit. We asked New York bartender Brian Miller, who organizes weekly Tiki Mondays events and who will also be leading the sold-out Suburban Tiki Safari during next month’s Manhattan Cocktail Classic, for his seven favorites. Here are his recommendations. Just don’t forget your Hawaiian shirt!
Chan’s Dragon Inn, 630 Broad Avenue, Ridgefield, N.J., 201 943 1276:
Conveniently located right off the New Jersey Turnpike, Chan’s Dragon Inn hasn’t changed a bit in more than 40 years, right down to dishes like Lobster Hawaii and Chicken Mauna Loa that clearly didn’t come from anywhere near the Pacific. But what really sets it apart, Miller says, is that its classic drinks are made with high-quality brands instead of the bottom-shelf stuff used by many of its competitors.
What to Drink: Zombie (white rum, dark rum, 151-proof rum, apricot brandy, pineapple-orange juice, grenadine)
Frankie’s Tiki Room, 1712 West Charleston Boulevard, Las Vegas, 702 385 3110:
This watering hole has only been open since 2008, but it’s practically a tiki museum. In fact, it was decorated by Bamboo Ben, the grandson of the guy who designed the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, and features carvings, paintings and custom drinkware created by a who’s-who of tropical artists. The best part? It never closes.
What to Drink: Lava Letch (rum, brandy, raspberry liqueur, ginger beer)
Jade Island, 2845 Richmond Avenue, New York, 718 761 8080:
This old-school Chinese restaurant in Staten Island is “locked in time,” Miller says. Enjoy a concoction like the Pineapple Paradise, served in a hollowed-out pineapple, with your egg foo young and chop suey.
What to Drink: Pineapple Paradise (rum, pineapple juice, coconut cream)
King Yum, 180-08 Union Turnpike, New York, 718 380 1918:
Located in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens, King Yum has been around since 1955. Grab a seat in a bamboo-hut booth and admire the vintage tiki masks on the walls. “I can’t remember the name of the drink I had,” Miller says, “but it was red and fruity and served on fire.” (He also recommends the pu pu platter.)
What to Drink: King Yum Special (rum, cognac, pineapple, lemon)
Mai-Kai, 3599 North Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 954 563 3272:
Miller calls this South Florida spot (which hosts the annual Hukilau tiki convention) “the Mecca of tiki.” Opened in 1956, the enormous venue houses several themed rooms as well as a large outdoor space with gardens, ponds and mid-century tiki idols. Plus, “the drinks can stand up to the best modern tiki bars,” Miller says, “and the food is out-of-this-world.” He suggests the Barrel O’ Rum, the roast duck and a reservation for the nightly Polynesian Islander Revue floor show.
What to Drink: Barrel O’ Rum (a secret recipe of white rum, dark rum and fruit juices)
Tiki-Ti, 4427 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, 323 669 9381:
This West Coast establishment may be small in size, but it has a formidable menu (92 cocktails!) and an impressive pedigree: It was started in 1961 by Ray Buhen, one of the barmen at the original Don the Beachcomber. (Today, Buhen’s son and grandson run Tiki-Ti.) Miller’s favorite tipple is the tequila and rum-based Jim’s Special, named for a “regular and real character” called Rasta Jim.
What to Drink: Jim’s Special (Myers’s Rum, Cazadores Tequila, passionfruit, lime)
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, 950 Mason Street, San Francisco, 415 772 5278:
In 1945, San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel hired a Hollywood set designer to turn its 75-foot terrace swimming pool into a lagoon that remains the centerpiece of this vintage gem, pictured above. (Live bands even perform aboard a floating barge, and there are indoor rainstorms on a regular schedule.) “The drinks are a little sweet,” Miller admits, “but this is a place everybody should see.”
What to Drink: Piña Colada (rum, pineapple juice, coconut syrup, cream)