Bar Notes: BONVIVANT’S Cocktail Tapas Café (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 6/10
This bar was recommended to us by a bartender in Prague, and we visited on a walk around the city on a bitter cold winter day.  As darkness fell and cold descended, the warm space was a nice respite from the outside weather. BONVIVANT’S is a relatively small establishment, with only room for five or six customers to sit at the bar counter. An adjoining, slightly elevated room provides booth and table seating. There’s a surprising amount of open floor space, sans tables – perhaps it’s packed with people standing in the evenings. The shiny tin ceiling seems out of place with the black/white checkerboard floors. Like elsewhere in Prague, the bartender wears a uniform, in this case a white lab coat.

The cocktail menu is divided into classics and original sections. Classics include a Hurricane, Brandy Crusta, Martinez, Cosmopolitan, and Last Word. The originals on offer were three or four ingredient affairs, sticking for the most part to standard ingredients rather than house made.
I started with the “classic” whiskey-based Penicillin. The ingredients were listed in Czech, so I have to assume the rest of the ingredients were as expected. Mrs. Wonk had the Provence (G-Vine gin, green Chartreuse, lavender syrup, with a flaming lavender garnish presented tableside). My second drink was the house Old Fashioned variation (Grand Marnier, calvados, Boker’s Bitters). All were competently executed but not enough to give a higher rating.

Disclaimer: We visited during the day and some folks were camped out at the tiny bar, so we took seats at the nearest table which was still fairly far away, and we weren’t able to interact with the bartender. That said, we made single-serving friends for the afternoon with a lovely couple traveling from Los Angeles—we commiserated about travel woes, bitter cold, and the positive attributes of bar tourism. They seemed to very much enjoy their several rounds of Last Words, before heading off to Vienna. Reviews I’ve read say that the food is good, so if you’re nearby and looking for a decent cocktail and reasonable food, I’d give BONVIVANT’s a try. However, I wouldn’t make a special trip across town just for this bar.

Bar Notes: Public Interest (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 6/10
This relatively new bar came highly recommended to us by the guide on our food tour. Although not on my list of bars to visit, it was close enough to our hotel to make it easy to drop in.
In contrast to some of the elaborately done-up and thematic bars in Prague (Bugsy’s, Tretter’s), Public Interest is very minimalist. Painted concrete (?) walls hold a few mirrors and movie posters. Lighting is minimal, except for a few artfully placed Edison bulbs (Mrs. Wonk says:  Good to know that Eastern Europe has not escaped the scourge of the exposed filament bulb…long may it burn.) I’m all for a dark bar, but I struggled to read the menu without using light from my iPhone screen.
The typewriter-font menu on a clipboard is moderately short and not overly ambitious compared to other bars in Prague. Drinks are divided by base spirit with at most two per spirit.
I started with the Medicine (rye, ginger, lemon, fig puree, honey), which was competent but not exceptional. Mrs. Wonk’s Lavender Gimlet (gin, lavender syrup, lemon, lime cordial) was way too sweet for either of our tastes.  (Mrs. Wonk readily admits that her eyes glazed over at the word “cordial”—or she might have anticipated the resulting sugar bomb.) I closed out our visit with the Teqroni (tequila, rum, Campari, vermouth) which tasted about what you’d expect a Negroni to taste like if you swapped the gin for tequila.  Drinks were invariably garnished with a wheel of dehydrated citrus—which we weren’t sure was a cultural norm or a new trend.  (One of the bartenders we later chatted with voted for trend.)
All told, Public Interest seems like a reasonable place to get a decent drink, but I wasn’t wowed by it the way I was by other bars in Prague. In fairness to them, they were packed with loud, boisterous drinkers (who seemed to like to bonk Mrs. Wonk in the back of the head with various elbows and body parts) when we visited, so there was no opportunity to chat with the bartenders and go beyond the standard menu. That said, it is a modern, pretty room with a modern, pretty crowd—which seems to be on the upswing in the Prague market.  It was nice not to see a room try to look like 1937 New York but rather like 2014 Prague by way of London or San Francisco.  Nonetheless, putting aside “busy bar” syndrome, I wasn’t compelled to make a return visit at a quieter time.  And keep an eye out for the lime cordial.

Bar Notes: Hemingway Bar (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9.5/10
Of all the bars I was looking forward to in Prague, Hemingway Bar was the most eagerly anticipated. It hits a trifecta of attributes I enjoy in bar: innovative cocktails, great ambience, and a focus on rums. It’s no surprise that it comes in at Number 24 on the 2014 “World’s 50 Best Bars” list.
We were the first through the door when it opened and secured a prime seat at the L-shaped bar just inside the door. Our early arrival was fortunate as we didn’t have reservations, and within a few minutes the rest of the space had filled up with couples and groups with reservations. It’s a relatively large establishment, but since it spans multiple levels broken up into low-ceilinged rooms, it maintains a cozy feeling.  The space is dimly lit with candles scattered about.

The overall vibe is from the 1930s. Lots of wood everywhere (including a gorgeous bar counter), leather sofas and chairs, vintage bar tools, and, of course, framed photos of Ernest Hemingway. The bartenders, nattily dressed in dress shirts and vests, were knowledgeable and confident as they worked, no doubt in part because the bar’s business includes bartender training and consultancy. Our bartender Tomáš was very friendly and suggested a few other bars for us to visit while in town.

The originality found within their spiral-bound cocktail menu is superb, exactly what I was looking for. I started with a Hemingway’s Paparazzi (Havana Club 7 rum, Becherovka, apricot brandy, simple syrup, apricot and chocolate tea, lime, and mint). While it tasted great, what put it over the top was the serving vessel: An insulated cup constructed to look like a camera lens (see the photos below). Round two was the Smoked Passion (mezcal, lemon, simple syrup, passion fruit puree, egg white, garnished with a speared spicy Dorito chip). The Dorito chip was a bit odd but whimsical, and the drink was quite enjoyable.
The only slight misfire of the night was the m&m’s cocktail (butter-infused Becherovka, peanut butter syrup, lemon, pear juice, egg white, topped with crushed m&m’s and cacao powder).  If nothing more than for curiosity’s sake, ordering this drink was a requirement.  While not offensive in any way, the crazy combination of ingredients didn’t create something better than their component parts, unfortunately.
It’s well-known that Hemingway favored rum, and the Hemingway Bar’s requisite list is stellar. I capped off my evening with a pour of Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Anejo, a 20-year aged Cuban rum. It was everything I hoped it would be and a bargain at $17. As I sipped it I snapped photos of the rum list to tease my rummy friends back home. So many bottles that aren’t available in the US!  (Yet.)
 The menu offers a variety of appetizers, always a good idea when you’re working your way through a cocktail menu like we were. A large plate of prosciutto and almonds was bargain priced and kept us going.
Like most bars in Prague, Hemingway Bar allows smoking, and at times the cloud was a bit much for me. However, there is a non-smoking bar area upstairs, a fact we didn’t realize until it was too late.
Hemingway Bar is a must-visit when you find yourself in Prague. Clear out time in your calendar, make a reservation, and prepare to go back in time to a much more elegant era while enjoying the benefits of imaginative, expertly executed, modern craft cocktails.

Cuban rums

Bar Notes: Anonymous Bar (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9.5/10

The Anonymous Bar was easily among the top experiences we had in the 20-plus bars we visited during our mini-European tour. It’s a theme bar, based on the Anonymous group and their Guy Fawkes mask-wearing members. Mrs. Wonk found the themey-ness just a bit much, but I found it amusing.

Finding Anonymous Bar was a challenge on the cold, dark December night we visited. A heavy, unmarked wooden door left ajar lead to a very dark courtyard. Eventually we pieced together that a door in an unlighted corner provided access to the bar. Upon entering, the space is a long rectangular room, mostly table seating with a raised section at the back, and a small bar counter as you enter. A flat screen over the entrance way silently loops the “V for Vendetta” movie for an added dose of theme.

We took our seats and the somewhat formally dressed bartender handed us DVD cases with a menu inside. The drinks names quite expectedly play along with the Anonymous theme. Strangely, there are two pages in the menu that are blank except for a heading: “OperationS 2015.” I won’t divulge the details here, but will say that a trip to Anonymous Bar isn’t complete without discovering the secret of the blank pages. Unless you’re extraordinarily well-equipped with gadgets, you may need some assistance from the bartender.

My first drink was a Blue Blazer. I felt a bit guilty ordering it as I know they take a while to prepare, but seeing as how nearly every bar we visited in Prague had one on the menu, I figured it wasn’t too big an imposition. The bartender donned a Guy Fawkes mask (from a stack on the back bar), the lights dimmed, and for a good 60 seconds, long blue strands of flaming Navy Proof rum poured back and forth between mugs.

Mrs. Wonk started the evening with a Scarlet Rose, a Ramos Gin Fizz variation, topped with a rose petal, and which she proclaimed the best Ramos Gin Fizz she’d ever had and ultimately one of the best drinks for her of the entire trip.

Subsequent drinks included the India Project (a rum-punch variation) and the 100% Leather Manhattan, aged in a leather wine skin. (The leather tones, while present, didn’t overwhelm.) The undisputed highlight of our visit was Mrs. Wonk’s drink (called the OP: Singapore) that arrived with cocktail glass nestled in a volleyball. A bit unwieldy to drink from, but definitely a conversation starter.

We enjoyed every moment of our time at Anonymous Bar. The cocktails are imaginative and superbly executed. We were barely able to tear ourselves away to head to our next stop. If you ever find yourself in Prague, consider it your wonky duty to check out Anonymous Bar.  And don’t make plans for a later stop—you won’t want to give up your seat at the bar.

Bar Notes: Bugsy’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8/10
The first thing you notice as you descend the stairs into Bugsy’s is its visual style, best described as mid-century New York glam, a throwback to an earlier, post-Prohibition era. It’s pristine, with nothing out of place. Curved ceilings, glass countertops, and extensive under-lighting, which dramatically highlights bottles on the back bar. Black leather booths line the wall opposite the long bar counter. White shirted, black bow-tied bartenders quickly and efficiently mix your drinks. You’ll definitely want to sit at the bar here.

The cocktail menu alone makes a trip to Bugsy’s worthwhile. Literally a bound book, illustrated with cleverly ironic cartoons, dividing the drinks into categories; my favorite– Batman overlooking Gotham City, martini glass in hand. Each drink, of which there are many, has an intriguing paragraph about the recipe, often referencing the drink’s history. It took me a thoroughly enjoyable ten minutes just to select my first drink, the Dam: Laphroaig 10-year Scotch, limoncello, and Dubonnet Rouge.

While mixing your drinks, the bartenders work at mixing station with yet more under-lighting, focusing attention on the beakers and glasses in play. The drinks are precisely executed and visually appealing. Bugsy’s has an impressive rum collection of roughly 100 bottles.
Bugsy’s has an additional focus on Champagne with a dedicated display case. A section of their menu is dedicated to drinks that include Champagne – the Old Cuban being a good example. The Champagne-based drinks are priced substantially higher than the non-champagne drinks, which is surprising; I’ve not seen this price disparity in other bars.  (Though Mrs. Wonk notes that it was pricey, brand-name Champagne marketed to a very style-conscious crowd—the price premium may be something of a status marker.)
Bugsy’s is definitely worth a visit. You’ll want to dress up a bit and savor the style and glamour not often found outside of high-end hotel bars.

Bar Notes: Black Angel’s (Prague)

Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8.5/10

Black Angel’s has three great things going for it: A clever menu, fairly well executed cocktails, and fabulous atmosphere! Easily in the top 10 percent of the coolest bar spaces I have visited. It’s actually a hotel bar, although with its subterranean stone cellar vibe, it doesn’t feel like it.
To get to Black Angel’s, enter the Hotel U Prince in the Old Town Square and descend two flights of solid wooden stairs. (Note the decades of wear on those suckers—and watch your step.) Within the hotel’s stone foundation you’ll find several rooms on multiple levels, dimly lit with lots of candles, giving the overall feel of a medieval castle. Although not obvious at first, there are two bars – the first one you see at the foot of the stairs is the service bar; the main seating bar is in the room to the right.
The hard-bound cocktail menu offers a fairly large set of options and divides the drinks into categories, with lots of house originals in addition to the expected classics. Best section: The “No Comment… :)” – See the photos.  (Though Mrs. Wonk in particular was dismayed to note the inclusion of the Negroni on the “no comment” list, alongside offerings like Sex on the Beach or a Tequila Sunrise.  Since when is a Negroni an embarrassing thing to order?) I noticed a few house made ingredients but not the same cornucopia as other bars.
Drink execution was precise; bartenders sported white dress shirts and ties. I particularly enjoyed the Becher Mai-Tai (Becherovka, Cuban rums, amaretto, lemon juice and maracuja, aka passion fruit syrup). Mrs. Wonk was enamored with the Black Angel’s Old Fashioned (Saffron and Beefeater 24 gins, simple syrup, Rhubarb and Peychaud’s bitters), with the highlight being the many-faceted and perfectly clear “jewel” ice cube, presented alongside the drink on a silver tray.  It attracted the attention of other drinkers, for sure.

The bar is steps from the Old Town Square and a totally fun experience, especially on a cold Christmas night after a four hour train ride from Vienna. Recommended.

Bar Notes: Prague Overview

Black Angel’s, Prague
As part of a three-country spin though Europe in the waning days of 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I thoroughly enjoyed four (chilly) nights in Prague. Although the London cocktail bars were the big game on this trip, I’d deduced beforehand that Prague has a handful of cocktails bars that looked like good candidates to investigate. Through careful planning we made it to all of them plus one more that came highly recommended. All told, we visited these bars (click individual links for my notes on each bar):
Prague has been infested by the “Bros on holiday” ethos. You’ll find any number of signs for strip clubs (200 models a night!), cheap beer bars, and nightclubs serving (I’m sure) only the finest quality vodka drinks. Do not despair! Good craft cocktail bars exist.

Prague is undoubtedly a beer town, and seriously, a decent beer can cost less than bottled water. There are quite a few microbreweries that have popped up in restaurants, and we visited several. Despite my focus on cocktails, I still managed to consume more beer in four days there than I did the entire rest of the year.

Coming from Seattle where I don’t blink at a $12 cocktail, I found Prague insanely inexpensive. Several times Mrs. Wonk and I tabbed out and giggled at the total. Typically drinks at high-end bars are around 160 Czech Koruna, or $6.75 US, roughly half what I’m used to, and the drinks were every bit as good.
The best known Czech native spirit is Becherovka, an herbal bitter liqueur similar to Jägermeister and Zwack. It’s readily available here in the US, and I’ve written favorably about it previously, so it was nice to see it featured in several cocktails including a Mai Tai at Black Angel’s.
All types and brands of spirits were readily available in Prague, a marked contrast to some other world-class cities we’ve visited, such as Buenos Aires. Several establishments had extensive back bars in the 300+ bottle range. As a rum aficionado, I know rum often gets short shrift in many bars – a couple of bottles of Bacardi and some Captain Morgan perhaps? However, in Prague rum seems to have an enthusiastic following, and I noted many bottles that would only be familiar to someone with a passion for rum. I took full advantage of the opportunity to consume good Cuban rum whenever possible.  (With the recent changes in US-Cuban relations, the prospect of drinking Cuban rum on our home soil is getting closer, but not quite here.  That said, it remains a novelty when overseas.)
One interesting thing we noticed was the profusion of Blue Blazer-type cocktails. The Blue Blazer is a labor-intensive cocktail from the 1860s, famous for its preparation that involves repeatedly pouring flaming high proof spirits in long, blue-tinged arcs between metal cups. Nearly every bar we visited in Prague has one on the menu—and they were ordered at each place and crafted enthusiastically. Most of the bars took to the theatrical aspect and dimmed the lights to show off the pyrotechnics.  Which of course meant a new round of orders, and more blue flames.
Central Prague is very walkable. All of the bars we visited were all within a ten minute walk of the Old Town square, making it easy to pop between them without worrying about transportation.

Some bars allow smoking. However, in most of the bars we visited, the ventilation did a respectable job of keeping the smoke to a tolerable level. Your mileage may vary.
Prague is a fantastic city, rich in history and visually stunning – highly recommended. You can’t walk ten feet without tripping over something older than the Mayflower. After a long day of touring, enjoying great cocktails at bargain prices is a perfect way to unwind.

Regrettably, we did not make it to this fine establishment.

Scoping out Nashville’s Craft Cocktail Scene

Rolf and Daughters
Mrs. Wonk and I recently spent a fab week in Nashville. When we weren’t attending concerts or touring distilleries, you’d find us at one of the city’s many craft cocktail establishments. Prior to our departure I’d done my research and come up with a punchlist of Nashville bars – some well-known and beloved, others up-and-coming and deserving of your attention, should you visit:
  • Rolf and Daughters
  • Holland House Bar and Refuge
  • Patterson House
  • Husk
  • The Sutler
  • No. 308
  • Pinewood Social
Along the way were some unexpected serendipitous moments and a few surprising disappointments. Before getting to the reviews, some general observations on the Nashville cocktail scene.

Many of the most recommended cocktail bars serve as the bar portion of nice restaurants, rather than a standalone bar that may offer a food menu. This detail is important to understand if you’re planning to experience as many cocktail dens as possible. In our experience, if the restaurant closes its doors at 11 PM, so does the bar. So it behooves you to plan ahead and visit restaurant bars earlier in your evening, rather than showing up an 11:30 PM only to find a locked door.

It warmed my spirits-loving heart to see the products of many smaller distilleries represented at nearly early bar we visited. I can’t remember a single bar that didn’t have something from local Nashville favorite Corsair. Supporting your local distillery is great, but the same was true of St. George Spirits out of Alameda, CA—not exactly in the neighborhood. Again, every bar we visited had at least one St. George Spirit bottle on the back bar. I also saw plenty of love for Prichard’s, a tiny distillery an hour or so south of Nashville, specializing in rum, whiskey, and liqueurs.

Something I noticed–and perhaps this was just a statistical anomaly–relates to glassware selection. Usually I can look at a cocktail description on a menu and guess what sort of glass it’ll be served in. Most spirit forward drinks, with the exception of an old-fashioned, are typically served “up” in a coupe. In Nashville I was surprised by how many drinks I expected to be served up were instead served in a double old-fashioned glass. Not that it’s incorrect per se, it’s just different than I’m used to seeing elsewhere.With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the bar reports

Rolf and Daughters – CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10

 

Rolf and Daughters is a “New American” cuisine restaurant that happens to have a reasonably ambitious bar program. The restaurant is an open, rectangular space with the bar area along one wall taking up about a third of the total floor plan. The overall vibe is casual modern, communal tables and lots of wood, brick, and Edison bulbs.  The cocktails aren’t serious Tales of the Cocktail contenders, but the selection is cleverly named with solid bones.

Mrs. Wonk started with the Spiker and Sponge (rye, peach shrub, honey, lemon, IPA, Peychaud’s) followed by the Deep Pimmside (Pimm’s #1, applejack, ginger, lemon, soda). I first enjoyed the seductive Pearway to Heaven (gin, pear brandy, crème de cassis, lemon, egg), and finished with a dessert cocktail, the Don’t Meletti Me Down  (port, Meletti, Smith and Cross, cinnamon, egg). All were tasty and well-executed.

Being a bar in service to a restaurant, on busy nights (and even Sunday night at 8 PM was busy), you’ll find yourself competing for space with red-wine swilling diners waiting for their table. If you have only one evening to check out craft cocktails in Nashville, there are better options. Since we had dinner reservations elsewhere, we didn’t get to extensively check out the food, but based on the one appetizer we did order and from watching the plates emanating from the kitchen, we’d definitely make a dinner reservation there the next time we’re in town, and stop in early to spend more time at the bar.

Holland House Bar and Refuge – CocktailWonk Rating: 8.5/10

 
The Holland House wasn’t originally high up on my list, but on a Tuesday night after a long drive from Louisville we were looking for both cocktails and real food for dinner. Holland House seemed like the best option. And what a fortuitous choice it was! Immediately upon entering the restaurant you’ll see the showcase square bar, with bartenders on the inside, surrounded by patrons on four sides. Several Nashville bars we visited had square bars, something I rarely see in other cities I’ve visited. The restaurant is moderately upscale southern  and the bar staff is attired with the 1920s leather aproned, mustachioed craftsman look.

Within seconds of skimming the cocktail menu I knew that it would be a long evening as I worked through several intriguing selections. Meanwhile the ever practical Ms. Wonk was selecting food items from an abundance of options. We worked our way through several cocktails including the Tom Waits for No Man (Mrs. Wonk’s favorite witty cocktail name of the week), Agent Provocateur, and The Lady Vanishes. I started chatting about mixology topics with our bartender, Ben. Since Mrs. Wonk and I agreed all of our cocktails so far had been excellent, I felt confident to go off-menu. The result was the wonderful mezcal-based Don Maximiliano, and Ben was gracious enough to share his original recipe.

Mrs. Wonk was particularly enamored by Ben’s very lumbersexual bar apron–all heavy-duty waxed cotton canvas, tanned leather, and silver clasp hardware– and asked him about it. Amusingly, the aprons are made in our hometown of Seattle. Who knew? Not us!  And Ben, our savvy Nashville bartender?  Originally a native of Spokane.  Left coast represent!

Cocktail Wonk’s advice: Don’t miss the Holland House. Go for dinner, sit at the bar, and say “Hi” to Ben for me.

Patterson House – CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10

 

The Patterson House is the big daddy of the Nashville craft cocktail scene, the bar on everybody’s short list of must-visit establishments. It’s often described as speakeasy style, although not particularly difficult to find (it’s right next door to the oh-so popular Catbird Seat restaurant), and no secret phrases or walking through refrigerator doors is required. What you will find upon entering is a small waiting room and a host stand. Beyond a curtain to the right, you can occasionally glimpse the bar. While you wait you can read the house rules, which boil down to: Don’t use your cell phone, no standing, mind your manners, be patient, and don’t hit on people. In short, a civilized bar that won’t get too crowded or too noisy, even on a busy Saturday night.

Yes, Patterson House gets a lot of love in the press and from the locals. However, I’m going to swim against the tide and state that Patterson House didn’t rock me like I was hoping for. (Update 11/2015 – Be sure to read my update on Patterson House at the end of this section below.)

The bar interior is 1920s speakeasy themed. Dimly lit, tin-ceilings, vest-wearing bartenders, flickering candlelight, all the things you’d expect. The rectangular bar sits in the middle of the room, while booths line the walls. A review of the spirits on the back bar got my nod of approval. So far, everything matched up with the glowing reviews I’d read.

The cocktail menu is very well executed, design-wise. House cocktails are broken down by spirit categories, and within each category ranked from most accessible through most challenging. (I applaud that bit of guidance for folks who want to try out new spirits but aren’t necessarily wonky about it.) The second portion of the menu is a lengthy list of classic cocktails. I’d vouch for everything on the classics list. Patterson House cocktail menu: Thumbs up!

So what’s my issue with Patterson House? The execution. We visited twice on a Wednesday night, before dinner at Catbird Seat and then several hours later after dinner for a nightcap. We spent a total of three hours at the bar, so I had plenty of time to observe the bartenders. I can write off one underwhelming drink or interminable wait as an unfortunate aberration. Unfortunately, there were multiple issues.

As someone who spends a lot of time in bars, observing bartenders, it was painful watching the drink construction at Patterson House. The first drink I ordered was a cognac-based cocktail stirred with ice. After depositing the mixing class with ice cubes in front of me, the bartender left and worked on other drinks for over ten minutes before returning. This was just one incident in a general start-stop-start-stop pattern I observed. Bartenders seemed to batch up tickets from several parties and then make eight or ten different drinks at once, with each shaker getting a brief moment of attention every few minutes. I’m not suggesting that drinks should be made one-by-one, but I think it’s good form to complete one party’s ticket before moving on to the next. I also noticed that our bartender was frequently referring to a menu reference. Perhaps he was new – fine, but even more reason to knock off the tickets one at a time.

I always seek out surprising, oddball spirits and flavor combinations in my cocktails, hoping to learn new tricks and expand my own horizon. You name it, I probably own it or have tried it. My first drink was one of the “challenging” Armagnac based cocktails (Armagnac, vermouth, rye, Amaro Nardini, mint), which I had high hopes for it. I’m familiar with each of its ingredients, but the drink was monotonic and mediciney. Interesting spirits combinations don’t always work out, and a good bar manager weeds out drinks that don’t make the cut. That didn’t happen in this case. A second, gin-based cocktail had the possibility of greatness except that the flavors were out of balance, as if the bartender made it haphazardly.

In fairness, Mrs. Wonk had a solid first drink prior to dinner (Piece of My Heart:  Pimm’s No.1, lemon, Amaro Albano, Earl Grey syrup, egg white, and strawberry) and enjoyed her nightcap of a Ramos Gin Fizz and took one for the team, continuing to imbibe until I had an enjoyable third drink.

The elements of a really good craft cocktail bar are present, and I’d recommend you try it out. However, I really wanted to enjoy Patterson House more than I did.

11/2015 Update: We re-visited Patterson House almost exactly a year later, and had a radically improved experience.  The bartenders were on top of their game, and all of our (too many) drinks were at least very solid, and several were exceptional. We also enjoyed a few off-menu spirits like brown-butter washed Plantation 5, combined with vermouth. Divine! I still stand by my original comments on my earlier review, but our repeat visit highlights that the bartender is a critical part of the experience.

Husk – 7.5/10

 
The bar at Nashville’s Husk restaurant is one of the rare breed that could easily stand on its own as a craft cocktail establishment. Husk serves elevated Southern cuisine by up-and-coming rockstar chef Sean Brock and is located in a converted multi-story mansion on a hill above downtown. Dining at Husk is very refined and stately, yet comfortable, with nothing out of place. The same applies to the bar.

On our first visit, we ate in the main dining room for dinner. While I had several excellent cocktails, I could only longingly gaze at the bar area as I walked by. It’s hard to write a bar review without visiting the bar! However, a last-minute opportunity for brunch at Husk a few days later allowed the opportunity to sit at the bar and observe like a wonk does.

The bar area is tucked away in the ground level and seats about twenty people. Looking through the bar I noticed that it was a moderately sized spirit collection, but every bottle up there was an impeccable choice for the slot it filled – exactly what’s needed, and not a bit more.

Just because the vibe of the bar at Husk is very refined doesn’t mean the cocktail menu is old-school and boring. Of the twelve or so cocktails on the menu (they change frequently), I found at least eight that piqued my interest, and all were well thought-out originals rather than rehashed classics with a fancy new name to confuse the civilians. Many of the drinks are guaranteed to be unique because they utilize ingredients made possible by Husk’s James Beard award winning kitchen. My personal favorite cocktails were the “Wild Aphrodite” (Pineau de Charentes, Manzanilla sherry, Amaro Nonino) and “To the Good, To the Bad” (embered-beet-infused mezcal, egg white, nasturtium cordial, lime, mole bitters). Look Ma! I’m eating beets!

Husk is a popular destination and, being a restaurant, isn’t open till the wee hours like a dedicated cocktail bar. You run the risk of a packed bar if you just pop by for a drink, but Husk is worth the effort to plan your visit in advance. (And Mrs. Wonk says don’t miss an opportunity to eat at Husk either—the pimento cheese alone is worth a trip back to Nashville.)

The Sutler – CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10

 

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first: A sutler is a “…civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters.”  The Sutler bar in Nashville came to us highly recommended by our bartender Ben at the aforementioned Holland House, although the Sutler couldn’t have been any more different in execution.

For starters, the Sutler (in its current incarnation, a “reimagined” version of the original Sutler, a longtime Nashville nexus for musicians, artists, and dive-bar aficionados, but located in the same restored theater building) is next door to a hotel in what feels like a strip mall on the outer edges of downtown Nashville. As I opened the door, I was blasted by honky-music coming from a band playing on a small stage at the end of a long, open rectangular room, with a large, well-lit kitchen on one side. Waitresses carrying around big pitchers of beer did nothing to assuage my inner voice saying, “This doesn’t seem like a place to get craft cocktails.”
A bouncer helpfully mentioned that the Sutler is two bars in one– The cocktail bar is downstairs, accessed via a curtained passageway just after the kitchen. On the other side, a stairwell leads down to a basement, the staircase ceiling jammed full of hanging cowboy boots. Ponder that for a moment. Arriving at the staircase bottom, still no cocktail bar in sight. Mrs. Wonk eventually poked her head through an unmarked door and discovered the bar area, looking like an old-fashioned brothel, a Victorian parlor, and a barber shop, all jammed together in a dark concrete basement.

The next surprise was the cocktail menu. Each cocktail is named after a song and described only by a name, base spirit, and a flavor synopsis, rather than a complete list of its ingredients. For instance, the “Fancy” is described as “Brandy – A full-bodied sour with the flavor of pecan.” Short of asking the bartender what’s in every drink, we were left to take a bigger leap of faith than usual when selecting a cocktail.

Our faith was well-rewarded. Everything we ordered was enjoyable. The Armagnac-based “Wildwood Flower” was a standout for me, while Mrs. Wonk particularly enjoyed the “Always on My Mind,” utilizing Corsair Ryemageddon. We struck up a conversation with Brad, the young bartender in charge of our drinks, and before long he was sharing drink recipe details and tips for other bars in Nashville to check out.

Long story short, if you’re looking for interesting cocktails in a quirky environment, the Sutler may be just the place you’re looking for.  Just don’t show up hungry—we arrived following a show at the Ryman downtown, only to discover that the kitchen had closed at 11 pm on a Friday.  After a couple of cocktails, the 24-hour Greek diner across the parking lot was a godsend.

No. 308 – CocktailWonk Rating: 9

 
No. 308 was easily one of the highlights of our bar tripping in Nashville. Without knowing any better however, you might dismiss it as just another hipster/dive bar serving beer and cheap G&Ts. It’s located off the beaten track in a commercial part of East Nashville. The interior is sparse – not much in the way of unnecessary décor – but who needs that when you have big video screens playing movies with no sound while a mix of 80s/90s music thumps in the background.
The cocktail menu at No. 308 arrives as a single sheet on a clipboard, utilizing a faux typewriter font for a ramshackle look. The first think you’ll notice is the punny drink names – Rye ‘N Goslings (rye, Gosling’s blackstrap, ginger, egg white and lime) or the Chili Chili Bang! Bang! (mezcal, amontillado sherry, grilled pineapple, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur). Spend some times contemplating the ingredients and it quickly becomes clear that No. 308 draws inspiration from all over the spirits kingdom. Everything on the menu (even the vodka drink) was something I’d seriously consider ordering. I particularly enjoyed the Sherry Darling (scotch, spiced pear liqueur, amontillado sherry, Amaro Sibilla), and Mrs. Wonk was partial to the Bottle Rocket (tequila, green chartreuse, rosemary, lime and salt).
Here’s the thing: No. 308 is really two different bars – outwardly it appears to be a typical neighborhood hang in East Nashville. But spend some time communing with the cocktail menu, and you’ll see there’s cocktail wizardry hidden in plain sight. Owner Ben Clemons has competed at the national level at Bombay Sapphire and Appleton Estate cocktail competitions. It was a busy Saturday night when we visited, and he was plenty busy pouring shots and beers, but soon enough Ben and I realized we were fellow spirit wonks, and it was off to the races. Special bonus cocktail rounds magically appeared, one featuring a proprietary fruit-based spirit that Ben’s in the process of development for eventual release. Ben was a charming host, even in a raging Saturday night crowd, and we wished we’d had more time to stay.  High on our list for a return visit to Nashville.

If you’re truly wonky about cocktails, you don’t want to miss Bar No. 308. Just leave your fancy clothes and expectations about what a craft cocktail bar should look like at home.

Pinewood Social – CocktailWonk Rating: 7.5

 
Pinewood Social was an unexpected bonus stop on our last day while waiting for our evening flight. Usually 4 PM on a Sunday isn’t the optimal time to evaluate a bar, but you make the best of the situation at hand. Pinewood Social isn’t just a bar, rather, it’s a former trolley barn converted into a giant indoor/outdoor space featuring a six lane bowling alley, outdoor plunge pool and hot tub (for the warmer months), bocce ball court, full-service restaurant, coffee bar, and cocktail bar. It’s a relatively recent addition to the Nashville scene and owned by the same savvy brothers who own Patterson House.
Whereas Patterson House encompasses you in a dark cocoon, the vibe at Pinewood social is big and open with large windows that let the sunlight stream in. The cavernous space, high open-truss ceilings and bowling alley in the next room give it a high-end sports bar vibe as opposed to a dark, craft cocktail den. The bar area is large and square, somewhat like the Patterson House, but on a larger scale.

While you certainly wouldn’t be out of place ordering a pint at Pinewood Social, the cocktail menu is distinctly non-sports bar like. I had concerns at first, given the initial ambience, but a few minutes with the menu laid those to rest. I started with the Sword of D’Artagnan (Argmagnac, pear brandy, Laphroaig, and bitters), the followed it up with a Three Roots of the Tree (rum, dry curacao, lemon, falernum, and nutmeg). Mrs Wonk enjoyed her Meaning of Happiness (Pimm’s #1, cognac, lemon, spiced pear liqueur, ginger syrup). Three drinks, three winners!  (Mrs. Wonk also gives high marks to the specialty coffee that finished her Nashville experience, the Tennessee Pride:  a latte with fennel and rosemary-infused maple syrup, topped with sage-rubbed bourbon sea salt.  Sounds like a mess, but it was a tasty burst of caffeine before a long night of travel.)

—-
Nashville impressed me with what I saw of the cocktail scene, and there were several other bars that we didn’t make it to including the 404 Kitchen and City House (where we had dinner but were not able to spend time at the bar) that get great reviews. The city has a vibrant food scene and a cocktail scene to match. Oh, and that little music scene thing—from belt-buckle country to local rockers Jack White and the Black Keys– will keep you occupied between drinks. It will be interesting to see if more standalone bars with serious craft cocktail credentials arrive.Nashville these days a city on the rise–a little bit Brooklyn, a touch of Portland, a dash of LA (and maybe a little too much Vegas for our tastes, having seen the Broadway District in full blown Saturday night mode )—and growing fast by the minute.  It’s also an easy target for those who would dismiss anything in “flyover country” as having any redeeming value.  That said, it was a great experience for us on all levels—killer music, great food, friendly people, fabulous bar scene. Highly recommended for a long weekend or longer if you can—there is much to see.  Nashville, we will definitely be back!

Lost Spirits Distillery Visits Tacoma Cabana For A Night of Rum Wonkery

This past week, Joanne Haruta and Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery visited my hometown of Seattle. I eagerly anticipated their trip as the Seattle area has several top notch rum-centric bars, including Rumba and Tacoma Cabana, as well as the Pantheon of the American Whiskey, Canon. Over several evenings we visited all of them, and much rum and whiskey scuttlebutt ensued. Fun side story: At Canon, Bryan and Joanne were shocked to find four different Lost Spirits whiskeys, several that they no longer have themselves.
One reason Bryan and Joanne visited was for a special evening at Tacoma Cabana where Bryan gave a presentation about rum chemistry and how he uses that knowledge to tweaks the flavor profiles of their rums, currently numbering four varieties: Navy Style, Polynesian Inspired, Cuban Inspired, and Colonial American Inspired.
The presentation at Tacoma Cabana was very familiar to me as months ago Bryan walked me through it via Skype, answering my countless questions along the way. That Skype session was the basis of my first in-depth post on the Lost Spirits process. It’s a very non-traditional rum-making presentation, so it was fun to watch the crowd reaction as Bryan threw out factoids such as how the decidedly unpleasant aroma of vomit is a precursor to the smell of pineapple. At one point, Bryan was talking through an eye chart of esters (photo below), discussing the elements found in pineapple. Somebody jokingly asked how to make the sour apple flavor. Without missing a beat Bryan rattled off the key esters and briefly diverted to a description of malic acid and grape skins, which provide the sour flavor.
To celebrate the event, Tiki master Jason Alexander, co-owner of Tacoma Cabana, created a special Tiki drink menu comprised entirely of house-original drinks showcasing the Navy, Polynesian, and Cuban rums. The recipe for the 15150 Swizzle appears below. A secret drink, listed only by its latitude/longitude coordinates, required a bit of Google foo and/or knowledge of sci-fi to unlock. And yet another drink, the Ganymede, appears in an earlier post on this blog. Prior to starting, Jason made one of each cocktail, providing some great photo opportunities:

Describing how Pirates of the Caribbean inspired the Navy Style rum:
An abbreviated listing of the fruity esters found in rum:
Bryan uses striking visual imagery to describe where flavors come from:
Selecting the right molasses is key to making the desired flavors:
Describing the difference between low and high rectification — Lost Spirits uses low rectification to keep as much of the esters generated during fermentation in the final product:
Acetic acid – aka vinegar, a byproduct of fermentation. You don’t want your rum to taste like this.
Ethyl Acetate – The smell of nail polish remover, and all too easy to inadvertently produce.
15150 Swizzle Recipe
The 15150 swizzle is one of the featured recipes at the event, and which Jason Alexander graciously provided the recipe for inclusion here. The 15150 name is play on the Lost Spirits Cuban Inspired 151-proof rum and the 5150, the California legal code for “involuntary psychiatric hold,” (aka “crazy” or that Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar that you bought on cassette).
  • 0.5 oz honey syrup (1:1)
  • 0.5 oz punch mix (see below)
  • 0.5 oz pineapple juice
  • 2 oz Lost Spirits Cuban Inspired rum
Build in tall glass with crushed ice. Swizzle.  Garnish outlandishly in Tiki style. Set things on fire.
The punch mix is the same mix used in the previously mentioned Ganymede recipe.
Punch Mix
  • 8 oz sugar
  • 8 oz lime juice
  • 1 oz Angostura bitters
  • 1/2 nutmeg, grated
Combine all ingredients, stir till sugar dissolves, then stir occasionally till the nutmeg dissolves.

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
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.