Top 10 Tiki Bars
Sip a tropical drink at these playful, retro-cool joints.
1. Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Since it opened in 1956, Mai-Kai has proudly carried the torch for tiki. Even today, it still exudes a "'50s-swinger" be. Waitresses wear sarongs and bikini tops. Each room reflects a different Polynesian region and overlooks a waterfall or lagoon. Polynesian dancers perform nightly. And then there's the Mystery Drink, which involves, among other things, a gong, flames, and a kiss on the cheek; 954-563-3272 or maikai.com.
2. Trader Vic's, Emeryville, California
"Trader Vic" Bergeron spearheaded America's tiki craze. In 1937, he turned Hinky Dinks, his rustic restaurant-bar in Oakland, California, into a Polynesian-theme hideaway that he renamed after himself. (In 1972, the flagship location moved a few miles north to the Emeryville bayfront, gaining great sunset views.) Vic pioneered fusion cuisine by introducing exotic island flavors to Chinese, French, and American dishes. Even more momentously, in 1944 he and his staff invented the potent beverage known as the mai tai; 510/653-3400 or tradervics.com.
3. Waikiki Wally's, New York, New York
This campy but affectionate tribute to the '50s heyday of tiki style opened a couple of years ago in the East Village area of Manhattan. Fake palm trees, real tropical birds, an indoor waterfall, and a forest's worth of bamboo create a fun setting. The evening entertainment ranges from hula dancers to a "Hawaiian western swing" band called Hulabilly; 212/673-8908 or waikikiwallys.com.
4. The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, San Francisco, California
"Over the top" seems so inadequate to describe this fantasyland inside the venerable Fairmont Hotel. Tables surround a lagoon on which floats a ship-shaped stage for the band. Periodically, thunder rumbles, and rain falls into the lagoon. Lavish quantities of faux foliage, carved tiki heads, thatched "roofs," and other Polynesian froufrou complete the decor. The Pacific Rim cuisine gets mixed reviews, as do the prices, but the happy hour buffet is a relative bargain. Sip a Bora Bora Horror and enjoy the ambience; 415/772-5278 or tongaroom.com.
5. Bali Hai Restaurant, San Diego, Californi
The Bali Hai, overlooking the water on Shelter Island, offers gorgeous views of San Diego Harbor and the city itself. Not long after its 1954 opening, the restaurant became so popular that several other tiki-theme businesses opened nearby. The tiki factor in the decor hasn't changed much over the years, but is coming back strong with the current "Polynesian pop" revival. Local boaters traditionally visit for Sunday brunch; 619/222-1181 or balihairestaurant.com.
6. Bahi Hut, Sarasota, Florida
Bahi Hut's 1960s-vintage decor includes but a single tiki (a carved image of a Polynesian god). No matter: Tiki attitude pervades the place, and the Hut still serves its fearsome original-recipe mai tai. There's a two-mai tai limit, for good reason. Less-dedicated drinkers should try the milder Sneaky Tiki; 941/355-5141.
7. Sam's Seafood, Huntington Beach, California
Little has changed since 1960 at this Pacific Coast Highway landmark. Everything from the bamboo-and-thatch decorating scheme and the plethora of tiki heads to the indoor waterfalls and clamshell phone booths conjures up South Seas fantasies. Stop by on Friday nights (April through November) for the Polynesian dinner show; 562/592-1321 or samsseafood.com.
8. Jardin Tiki, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
You come here for quantity, in terms of both food (it's a Chinese buffet) and exotic accoutrements. Tiki heads poke from lush foliage. Live turtles stock a pond. Glass-float lamps glow above rattan chairs. The colorful tropical cocktails might arrive in a pineapple or a coconut shell; 514/254-4173.
9. Luau Polynesian Lounge, Seattle, Washington
Of all the places on our list, Luau puts the greatest emphasis on food. Proprietors Thomas and Jessica Price both worked with celebrated Seattle chef Tom Douglas (Thomas at Etta's Seafood, Jessica at Dahlia Lounge). The flaming pupu platter provides a good sampling of the "island soul food." From there, your taste buds will guide you; 206/633-5828 or luaupolynesianlounge.com.
10. Kowloon Restaurant, Saugus, Massachusetts
The Wong family has operated this Boston-area institution since 1950. The restaurant has expanded several times and now incorporates a variety of cuisines (Cantonese, Szechuan, Polynesian, Thai, sushi) and decorating styles. But the gloriously tikified Tiki Lagoon remains the most popular dining area. Try for a booth beside the fountain that runs down the middle of the room; 781/233-0077 or kowloonrestaurant.com.