When I first walked into Otto’s Shrunken Head, I felt like I’d been there before. I lived in New York back in the early 2000s and before Otto’s was Otto’s, it used to be Barmacy. Barmacy was a bar that was supposed to be a pharmacy that turned into a bar. Pretty interesting idea, but a Tiki bar is so much cooler!
Every painting starts with one brush stroke. Each stroke that follows can make the painting better or worse.
The same thing is true with building a Tiki bar. The possibilities are only limited to your imagination, or to how much you care about building something special. I don’t want to say there’s a right or wrong way to build a Tiki bar, but as they say, “The proof is the pudding.” There are definite reasons why certain Tiki bars have lines outside the door and why others close a couple months after opening. Forbidden Island in Alameda, CA is not the later! Forbidden Island is one of the oldest of the new Tiki bars, opening its doors a decade ago in 2006.
The main appeal of a Tiki bar is to create the illusion that you are in a tropical paradise. When you’re actually in Hawaii, why would you need the illusion? You’re actually there! What’s tough is finding a bar that actually makes good drinks. All Mai Tais are not created equal in Hawaii and good luck finding a place that makes a good one. Well folks, if you happen to find yourself on the island of Maui you’re in luck. Head the directly to the Monkeypod!
If there is any Tiki bar that should get honorable mention, it should be the Waldorf Hotel in Vancouver, BC. The place is essentially a dance club. I can assure you, electronic dance music will be pumping out of the speakers—not Martin Denny. When I visited the Waldorf, I didn’t even have a drink. In fact, I don’t know if they even serve any Tiki cocktails at all.
So why am I writing about this place? Two reasons. Well, maybe three.
If I had a nickel for every time someone said this to me, I would be rich! Okay, well maybe I would have enough to buy a cup of coffee, but I digress.
Yes, starting a Tiki bar is a dream of mine, but it’s not easy and it’s not cheap. You need to find a place that’s in a good location and somewhere you can afford the rent. You also need a license to serve alcohol AND a license to sell it. I haven’t even talked about the money needed for décor.
One idea I thought of was doing a “pop-up” bar. I was down in Los Angeles and they got pop-ups for everything including food, clothing, music, and of course, booze. The idea is to rent a space out for a week, a month, or even a day. I thought a Tiki pop-up bar would be a great idea. Well, great minds think alike. Duffy De Armas made my a dream a reality! He opened the Tiki pop-up bar: the Low Tide Lounge.
I live in Seattle. I booked a flight and flew six hours across the country to go to the Mai Kai. Why? Because when it comes to Tiki bars, the Mai Kai is it! My visit to the Mai Kai lasted five hours and I could have stayed longer. What is so special about the Mai Kai you may ask? Well, let’s start from the beginning…
It’s a city that’s a 45-minute train ride from downtown Manhattan. It has no claim to fame and I can’t see anyone needing to or wanting to go there—unless you happen to be my buddy Matt who lives there.
I was in Pennsylvania visiting my parents and long story short, I missed my connecting flight that would get me back to Seattle. I asked the man at the flight desk what my options were. He said I could come back the next day and fly out at 5:00 AM (no, I wasn’t doing that!) or I could fly down to Newark right then and fly out from there the next morning at 8:00 (okay, that’s much better). So that’s what I did.
Matt picked me up at the Newark airport and started heading back to his place. “Are you hungry?” Matt asked. “If so, there’s someplace you need to see.”