Deep insights into rum, whisk(e)y, brandy, tiki and bars
Going Full Metal Tiki in the San Francisco Bay Area
California has a disproportionately large number of great Tiki bars, which isn’t terribly surprising since Tiki originated in Southern California and the Bay Area during the latter half of the 1930s. Portland has one Tiki Bar of note (Hale Pele) and the Seattle area has Tacoma Cabana, but beyond those, Tiki is relegated to the occasional “theme night” in the Pacific Northwest. It’s no surprise then that I’ll always jump at a California trip excuse to get my fill of Tiki. During our recent visit to San Francisco for VMworld, Mrs. Wonk and I visited ten bars, four of which were Tiki. The other six bars are covered in the prior post while this post has my thoughts on the two new (to us) Tiki bars we visited, plus two returning favorites.
A disclaimer about the photos here: Tiki bars are nearly always dark. A well-lit Tiki bar would just seem…off. Thus, dark rooms, small cameras, and no flash are a recipe for dark, grainy photos.
Smuggler’s Cove – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9/10
Smuggler’s Cove decor
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Smuggler’s Cove as it’s rightly on every published “Best Tiki Bar” list and is famous for having the largest rum collection of any bar in the world. Owner Martin Cate, along with Jeff Berry, has become one of the go-to experts for Tiki-related quotes. Rather than rehashing what’s been well-documented elsewhere, I will focus on the Smuggler’s Cove experience, being a seasoned veteran with two trips under my belt.
Wait, this is a Tiki bar?
I guarantee you that nearly everybody arriving at Smuggler’s Cove for the first time has a “WTF?” moment. Set on an otherwise normal, low-rise commercial street, the view from the exterior is of a typical modern looking storefront like you’d find in an office park – and the dark, aluminum framed windows give no hint what’s behind them. No tiki torches. No Polynesian-looking sign suggesting what might be inside. Honestly, it could be any non-descript business. (Mrs. Wonk’s comment upon arriving for our first visit, “Are they going to sell me insurance in here?”) The only indication you’ve found the right place is small two-inch lettering on the glass door reading “Smuggler’s Cove.”
While the exterior may not provide many clues, the crowd of people waiting outside might give you a hint that something’s going on behind the dark facade. Smuggler’s Cove is not a large space, yet it is world-renowned, so it’s not uncommon for people to queue up outside to wait for seats inside. Here’s an important tip: If you’re a “must sit at the bar” person like I am, arrive prior to the 5 PM opening and be prepared to queue. Yes, even on a Tuesday. On our first visit, we naively arrived at 5:10 PM and there were no seats to be had. On this trip we arrived at 4:45 PM, so were first in a line of about fifteen when the door opened.
Smuggler’s Cove decor
Smuggler’s Cove is just a bit more awesome because it’s split over three levels. Step inside and it’s very, very dark. In front of you to the right is a small bar with about eight seats, and other than drink rail with seating along the left-hand wall, no other seating on this level. Toward the back, a set of stairs leads to an upper level with seating that overlooks the main floor. To the immediate right of the entry—watch your step as you come inside–is a curving set of metal stairs leading down past a three-story waterfall to the lower level, with more seating, the pool of the waterfall, and a secondary bar in the far back. The décor and theme of all three levels is over-the-top nautical Tiki – thick jute ropes, glass buoy lamps of various colors, rum barrels, and a giant suspended anchor: imagine the Pirates of the Caribbean set squished into your neighborhood watering hole. Also coo: I met the guy (“Notch”) who designed the space a few days later at a private party high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Stephen Liles at the main floor bar helm, Smuggler’s Cove.
Since we were first in the door, and with the benefit of knowing the lay of the land, we grabbed prime seats at the main level bar; with only eight seats, any of them are prime territory. Behind the bar was Stephen Liles, man of many hats. Stephen is a veteran at the Cove and a model of efficiency. Very little motion is wasted as he churns through the never-ending list of drink orders. Because he was so busy there wasn’t a good opportunity to chat with him for more than a few sentences. Every drink he crafted for us on both visits was top-notch.
First round at Smuggler’s Cove, including the Rum Barrel, now in my collection.
The menu at Smuggler’s Cove is a masterpiece, nicely bound and segregated into thoughtful categories, with each drink receiving a well-written description. Seriously, if you own a Tiki bar, this is the way to get your drinks the credit they deserve. The drinks are a mix of the expected as well as forgotten Tiki classics, along with house originals. A few drinks come in special Smuggler’s Cove branded Tiki mugs, which you can purchase with the drink for a few dollars more. There are dozens of different mug releases in existence, so I’m glad I’ve grabbed a different mug on each visit. (Mrs. Wonk feels a new collection coming on.)
Plantation Royal Blend, exclusively at Smuggler’s Cove
If you’re in to sipping rums, be sure to ask for the rum list, which is a separate menu. It numbers in the hundreds, some you will not find anywhere else. One in particular is a special Plantation Rum bottling exclusive to Smuggler’s Cove called the “Royal Blend”–containing four rums and aged in three different types of barrels, the last two being Cognac and Maury (a sweet French wine). I limited myself to just two cocktails because I knew I was having the Royal Blend. Mrs. Wonk will attest that I was rendered nearly speechless for several minutes, it was that phenomenal. (Mrs. Wonk says this is good information, in case she needs to render me speechless at some future time of her choosing.)
Besides arriving early if you want a good spot, the other advice I’ll give is to eat up before you get there. They don’t serve any food, and with all the rum you’ll happily consume, you’ll rapidly go off the deep end unless you’ve laid down a healthy base of food first. (Mrs. Wonk would have paid a considerable amount for some sad bar nuts or goldfish crackers.)
To sum it up, Smuggler’s Cove does Tiki drinks exceedingly well. Yes, it’s become a bit of a tourist destination with all that entails: sometimes long waits for cocktails, crowded spaces, clueless people ordering wine (really???) but it hasn’t jumped the shark yet, and it likely won’t. If you have the chance, don’t question — just go.
Longitude – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8/10
Longitude, across the water in Oakland, is new in the Bay Area Tiki scene. However, it comes with impeccable credentials in the form of owner Suzanne Long, previously the general manager and head bartender at Forbidden Island (reviewed below). My Longitude notes here don’t have quite the same level of details as other bars, as our visit didn’t follow my normal bar visit pattern where Mrs. Wonk and I sit at the bar and soak in the experience. This was because we were fortunate to be accompanied by Josh Miller from the Inu a Kena blog. With all the great conversation, I didn’t have as much time for mental note taking.
The bar at Longitude
Longitude is newly constructed and looks more upscale and put together than your typical Tiki restaurant, combining Caribbean and African influences rather than Polynesian grass shacks and leis. Mrs. Wonk is a respected interior designer and doesn’t quite “get” the African / Caribbean mash-up (however well-executed), but Josh and I think it works. The bar counter is a gorgeous slab of wood, the stools are casually elegant, and faux plants are abundant but tastefully done. The bar area itself is unusually bright for a Tiki bar. But at our table about ten feet from the bar, it was dark enough to require cell-phone light to read the menu. Next to us was a semi-private “hut” for large parties.
Cocktail at Longitude
The cocktail menu comprises about fifteen drinks, each with a nice description. I opted for the Queens Barrel (“three rums, sparkling citrus, and passion fruit”) which both Josh and our waitress warned me was the booziest of the drinks. It was well made and on par with the drinks at Smuggler’s Cove. With a few exceptions, the drinks are house originals, some venturing into some non-Tiki areas, such as the gin-based Farmer’s Martini. Fifteen drinks is great for a normal restaurant menu, but high-end Tiki restaurants typically feature quite a few more. Longitude takes a lot of cues from Tiki but doesn’t slavishly follow the idioms.
Longitude’s Pu Pu platter
Bonus points for Longitude for their food menu, which covers both the usually Tiki dishes (Mrs. Wonk highly recommends the well-executed Pu Pu platter, which at some restaurants can sometimes be a sugary mess but instead was tasty and well-balanced, flavor-wise.) as well as British-influenced dishes like bangers and mash, mac and cheese, and shepherd’s pie (tying into that African-explorer theme).
“Hut” at Longitude
Out visit to Longitude was during its first few weeks of operations, so they may not have pulled out all the stops yet. We had a very enjoyable time, and I’ll definitely visit again to see how they evolve.
Tonga Room – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7/10
Ship deck dance floor at Tonga Room, SF.
If you’re a fan of over-the-top, vintage Tiki environs, the Tonga Room is an essential pilgrimage. If you’re looking for dozens of different, expertly Tiki cocktails (a la Smuggler’s Cove), you’ll come away mildly disappointed. I’m clearly in the first category, so a Tonga Room visit is an essential part of a San Francisco visit.
More than any other Tiki Bar I’ve been to, the Tonga Room is about the visual experience. You really do feel as though you’re stepping back in time to 1945, which is when it first opened here in San Francisco. What does a visit to the Tonga Room entail? First, you set course for the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco, perched at the top of Nob Hill with amazing views in every direction. (Walk if you haven’t been to the gym in a week, take an Uber if you’re committed to wearing those stilettos.)The Fairmont is an enormous, elegant historic hotel dating back to 1907. Walking through the lobby, which hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, you’ll think, “There’s a Tiki bar in here somewhere?” Find the elevator that takes you down a few floors, wander down a long hallway though the bowels of the hotel until you spy volcanic rock and a small lobby with an entrance leading into the Tonga Room. Step through the door, and…wow!
Bandstand in Tonga Room’s lagoon
In front of you is full blown wooden ship rigging. Beyond that is a pool (think: regulation size hotel swimming pool), surrounded on three side by dining tables under open thatched roofed “huts.” Along the pool rim are festive strings of lights and lanterns. In the middle of the pool is a thatched roof bandstand made up to look like a Polynesian river boat. Take it all in – this may be the closest you’ll ever come to Tiki’s glory days in the 1940s and 1950s. The space you’re in used to be the Fairmont’s swimming pool area, but in 1945 was converted into the Tonga Room. With its long history and serious Tiki cred, the Tonga Room was designated a historical resource after an ill-conceived effort to get rid of the space a few years back.
Bar at Tonga Room, SF
The bar area is to your right, with seating for about twelve at the bar, with hi-top seating close behind. Take a seat at the bar (obviously) and grab an old-school Tiki “picture menu”—in case you have no idea what a Scorpion Bowl looks like. The drinks include a few vintage classics (Mai Tai, Zombie, Singapore Sling), other drinks often lumped into the Tiki category (Pina Colada, Margarita), and a few house originals. I’ll be honest, I was concerned at first that the drinks would be a travesty, akin to the pineapple and OJ “Mai Tai” found at every hotel bar in Hawaii. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Tonga Room sticks to the original recipes for the most part. Extra credit for the Small Hand Foods orgeat behind the bar, rather than some petrochemical based “orgeat.”
Mai Tai at the Tonga Room, SF
While the drinks aren’t up to Smuggler’s Cove / Latitude quality level, with careful ordering you can get decent-enough Tiki drinks to pass the time while you marvel at the lava-stone walls and wait out the rainstorm. Yes…rainstorm. Indoor. Rainstorm. Over the pool at 30 minute intervals. How awesome is that? If you’re with a friend or three, order a bowl (sized for two or four) and sip it through the ridiculously long straws provided. Currently there are three bowls on offer: Scorpion, Smuggler’s Cove, and Lava. On our prior Tonga Room visit, we were served by the very nice bar manager, a fellow Tiki wonk, who generously gave me our bowl for my collection. As you’d hope for a restaurant within a hotel, the Tonga Room has a slightly above average Tiki/Asian fare menu, including a Pu Pu platter, pork ribs, won tons, and spicy chicken wings.
Immerse yourself in the Tonga Room vibe, and you’ll be reluctant to leave. There’s always a detail you hadn’t noticed before. Have moderate expectations about the cocktails, soak in the Tiki history, and you’ll find yourself planning a return trip.
Forbidden Island – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5/10
First, let’s start with a bit of backstory connecting Forbidden Island to other bars in this post. Back in 2006, Martin Cate along with some partners opened Forbidden Island in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. He left in 2009 to start Smuggler’s Cove, and Suzanne Long, now of Longitude, assumed head mixologist duties at Forbidden Island. As such, Forbidden Island played a role in the eventual formation of both Smuggler’s Cove and Longitude.
Forbidden Island was our last Tiki stop, shortly before heading to the airport to return home. Although Sunday at 3 PM isn’t normally the time I’d pick for a bar visit, it was the only time we had free, and hey, Forbidden Island is open! I’d convinced myself this would work out well because bars are generally empty on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, right? We strode in and… what the hell? It was packed! Turns out that Forbidden Island hosts a lot of special events, and we’d arrived just as the Tiki Car Hop was getting underway. Realizing this wasn’t going to be an optimal visit, we stuck around and did our best to extrapolate what it would be like at a less busy time (i.e., ordering and drinking while standing).
Forbidden Island bar
The interior is dominated by a long, straight bar that can easily accommodate four bartenders behind it. The back bar is a treasure trove of rums, somewhat similar in vibe to Hale Pele in Portland. Over the bar area is a low, thatched “roof,” the underside festooned with hundreds of attached dollar bills. Along the opposite wall is a row of enclosed booths, and overhead hang colorful, nautical glass buoys, rope netting, and palm fronds, giving a pleasant ramshackle vibe.
Cocktails at Forbidden Island
The cocktail menu was an abbreviated event menu (for the car hop), with around fifteen drinks listed. A friendly regular at the bar noticed our puzzled looks and explained that the normal menu has three times the number of drinks, which I was able to verify online. The full menu is broken down into “traditional Tiki,” “house specials,” “famous tiki bar tributes,” “cocktail classics,” and “pools of paradise” (i.e. punch bowls). In a whimsical twist, most of the drinks have a skull and crossbones symbol indicating their relative strength. Both the drinks we ordered met my high expectations, and if we had more time, I wouldn’t hesitate to explore more of their creations. There’s also a small food menu although we didn’t partake—it’s hard to Pu Pu while standing up.
Drink all the rum at Forbidden Island
Patio behind Forbidden Island
Forbidden Island has a patio and a small parking lot out back, which was the showplace for the Tiki Car Hop, which featured quite a few well-restored vintage cars, which we took our time wandering through. The sunny Sunday patio was perfect for day drinking outside—and a haircut, should you need it (the car hop offered services in a full-on old-style barber’s chair). Just another day in Tiki-ville! Although I didn’t have the optimal Forbidden Island experience I’d hoped for, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back next time we’re in the Bay Area.
Stay tuned for my final post from this trip which covers my visit to St. George Spirits Distillery.