Really Good Tiki: Martin Cate on What Makes a Great Tiki Bar

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(image: Nathan Whipple)

Every Tiki lover remembers where they were when they first fell in love with the Polynesian-inspired lifestyle, whether it was a childhood visit to Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room or a memorable Mai Tai.

But nowadays many credit Martin Cate, the author of Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki” (Ten Speed Press, $30) and owner of the San Francisco’s legendary Tiki bar with the same name, for the moment when they first saw the light.

Smuggler’s Cove (image: Kelly Puleio)

If it wasn’t because of his James Beard Award–winning book or accolade-laden bar, it was definitely at one of his other Tiki bars around the U.S.: False Idol in San Diego, Hale Pele in Portland, Ore., and Lost Lake in Chicago. He talks to us about what makes a good Tiki bar and how to keep the genre fresh after almost 90 years.

What made you fall in love with Tiki?

I first fell in love with Tiki bars upon a visit to the Washington, D.C.’s Trader Vic’s in 1994. I was enthralled by the sharp contrast to the austere gray marble of the hotel and the immersive environment of the arts and crafts of the space, coupled with the dramatic and delicious cocktails. It was a whole new world that I didn’t understand but wanted to immediately.

False Idol (image: Zack Benson)

What does one need to make a great Tiki bar?

In addition to fantastic cocktails, a transportive space filled with quality arts and crafts that compels you to leave your troubles at the door. It should be a windowless environment that feels both exciting and comforting at the same time.

Tell us about the idea behind each of your Tiki bars.

Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco puts its focus decoratively on the nautical side of Tiki design, with a menu that celebrates the three-century history of rum, alongside the largest rum selection in America.

Smuggler’s Rum Barrel at Smuggler’s Cove, left, and Polynesian Forty Niner at False Idol

Hale Pele in Portland celebrates high Tiki design and mixology with vintage and modern artwork in a cozy neighborhood setting.

Lost Lake in Chicago combines contemporary exotic cocktail mixology in a pre-Tiki setting that evokes both the tropical nightclubs and beachcomber style of the 1930s and 1940s.

False Idol blends San Diego Tiki bar heritage with a celebration of the artistic revival in the Tiki community in a boldly dramatic space.

Hale Pele (image: Dylan + Jeni)

How have you gone on to build a separate identity for each of your Tiki bars?

Each one uses different artists and designers to create the space. Additionally, they all have unique beverage programs offering individual twists on the exotic cocktail.

How do you keep Tiki fresh and relevant?

All of these locations pay respect to the cocktail traditions that defined the exotic cocktail, but all offer modern cocktails with contemporary ingredients and twists like different base spirits. The exotic cocktail template offers quite a bit of room for growth and experimentation. We also work closely with artists working in the thriving genre today to provide quality decorative elements.

What is the drink to order from each of your bars and why?

I don’t have any favorites. They’re all precious little angels. Honestly, all of these venues offer a variety of drinks with different levels of sweetness, bitterness, strength, size, etc. The best thing is to talk with your bartender or server when you arrive and let us find something that’s well-suited to your tastes. We have the drink for you, I promise!

Bunny’s Daiquiri Banana at Lost Lake, left, and Jet Pilot at Hale Pele (image: Clayton Hauck)

Having said that, here are some that are popular sellers, so I’d suggest listing them that way.

Smuggler’s Cove’s Smuggler’s Rum Barrel comes with a collectible barrel and has a secret recipe of fresh lime juice, pineapple juice, Smuggler’s Barrel Mix and three kinds of demerara rum.

False Idol’s Polynesian Forty Niner uses a tasty honey butter mix for a really creamy and satisfying texture and is made with chai-infused bourbon, St. George pear brandy, Madeira, orange juice, lemon and a house-made gardenia mix.

Lost Lake (image: Kay D.)

Lost Lake’s Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri is made with overproof Jamaican rum, overproof demerara rum, spiced rum, banana, coconut and lime and comes with the very famous and Instagrammable banana dolphin garnish.

Hale Pele’s Jet Pilot is a concoction of aged rum blend, citrus, cinnamon and falernum. Everybody loves the cinnamon fire show.

Brands: St. George
Series & Type: Bartenders OnlyBar Talk
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