If there’s such a thing as Pirate Tiki, then we have bartender Brian Miller to thank for it.
A Tiki renaissance is sweeping the globe, but so far, New York City has stayed above the rising tide. Nonetheless, Miller placed his bet. “I think this is New York’s year,” he says. “Everybody else has had their revival.” In May, he unveiled his bar The Polynesian, the culmination of more than a decade of tropical toil, intense endeavor and rum refinement.
The Polynesian was already one of the most anticipated openings of the year, but now that it’s here, who is this figure at its helm, and why is he sporting the three-cornered hat, smoky eyes and facial hair of late-period Johnny Depp?
Brian Miller was not always a pirate, but he was always a bartender. When he first got his hands on Dale DeGroff’s book “The Craft of the Cocktail,” Miller knew that was the kind of bartender he wanted to be—the poise, the cufflinks, the fresh juice. When he had the chance to work as part of the opening team at Audrey Saunders’ now-legendary Pegu Club, in 2005, he began to live that dream. “All the things that were in Dale’s book were going to be in Audrey’s bar,” he says.
Miller would forevermore embrace the rigorous approach to cocktails he learned from Saunders and DeGroff, but arm garters and double Windsor knots were not his final destiny.
In Pegu Club’s well-stocked cocktail reference library, he discovered another influential book, “Grog Log” by tireless Tiki researcher Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (currently applying that same knowledge as the proprietor of New Orleans storied sanctuary Latitude 29). The book was Miller’s foray into Tiki, and he was immediately hooked.
He absorbed the Beachbum oeuvre, including Intoxica! and Taboo Table. When Berry followed up with the comprehensive Sippin’ Safari, as Miller put it, “that book changed the course of my life. It told the story of Tiki and its heroic bartenders. I wanted to be one of those guys. It created a passion in me.”
Berry’s investigations had unearthed recipes for fabled drinks that had gone untasted for a generation. Beachbum was, in a way, the think tank that enabled the Tiki-industrial complex as we now know it. Armed with this erudition, Miller unleashed his brilliant, chaotic and unapologetically fun gift to the world: Tiki Mondays with Miller.
Originating in 2011 in the basement of Julie Reiner’s Lani Kai, an elegant Hawaiian lounge in downtown Manhattan, Tiki Mondays quickly became one of New York nightlife’s can’t-miss events. Every week, Miller would mix and pour alongside a roster of guest bartenders that read like a who’s who of the craft cocktail movement.
Each Monday featured an entirely new menu of original drinks and riffs on classics from the tables of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s. As befitted their riotous, rock ’n’ roll spirit—and because rum was involved—Miller and his team took on the personas of South Seas pirates, face paint, head scarf, sarong and all.
Tiki Mondays with Miller enjoyed a six-year run, later dropping down to monthly and then quarterly and occasionally changing venues. After more than half a decade of creative foment, it was time to commandeer a new bar to call his own. And with Miller’s treasure trove of original Tiki drinks, is it any wonder that The Polynesian is on such a grand scale?
As a collaboration with Major Food Group, known for its larger-than-life venues such as Carbone, Dirty French, The Grill, and The Pool, Miller’s bar was guaranteed to be anything but ordinary. Together, they have developed what might be described as fine-dining Tiki.
The refined turquoise, brass and tapa cloth interiors draw inspiration from South Seas beaches and nautical equipment, but the effect is more five-star resort than pirate lair. Its downright tastefulness is where The Polynesian may break most clearly from Tiki as it’s generally understood, usually involving more in the way of thatch and puffer fish lamps. Those are wonderful details for a bar, but their replacement with haute Tiki minimalism is an intriguing experiment for which Major Food Group is uniquely suited.
The Tiki aesthetic has recently come under scrutiny for what some see as its cultural insensitivity, an issue Miller both recognizes and laments. However, The Polynesian’s décor downplays the typical signifiers of Tiki, avoiding out-of-context carvings and cartoon imagery of island life. Its neutral grand-hotel approach, which nonetheless draws inspirations from Polynesian art and history, is Major Food’s attempt at a tenable, contemporary Tiki style.
Among the graceful décor, the proprietor’s pirate playfulness comes to the fore in the deep menu of drinks. For all his love of rum, Miller’s trademark may be his incorporation of other spirits into the Tiki milieu. In addition to many alluring rum creations, you’ll also find scotch combined with coconut; tequila with orgeat syrup; bourbon with spice mixes; and cognac with sarsaparilla, all of which evoke the spirit of Tiki while also transcending the presumption about what exactly constitutes a Tiki drink.
Another standout on the cocktail menu is the sophisticated Kamehameha, a stirred rum, vermouth and coffee concoction that excludes Tiki’s typical tropical juice but reminds us that coffee is itself a fragrant fruit.
There’s always the welcome expectation of large-format drinks in a Tiki bar, which is an opportunity for an establishment like The Polynesian to parade its remarkable vessels and artistic stylings. (In fact, almost every drink on its menu is served in its own special glass, many crafted just for the bar.) The bowl presentations, in giant clam shells, outrigger canoes, fish bowls or ceramic treasure chests, certainly make the grade with Hollywood staging.
But the liquids, like the curry and lemongrass notes of the Exotica Bowl and the back-to-basics rum and juice of the Barbossa’s Punch, found inside these epic bowls are so damned delicious they’d satisfy even if served in a cracked-open bilge pump.
Even The Polynesian’s location, just off the lobby of the new Pod Hotel on 42nd Street, is appropriate to its Tiki heritage. In the 1940s through the ’60s, when Tiki was chic, elegant New York City hotels required equally elegant bars and restaurants, and they often chose Tiki bars.
“This is the first sign of a return to that in New York City,” says Jeff Berry. “The Polynesian is an un-ironic, upscale, full-tilt Tiki bar, and it’s in New York, which has resisted the Tiki trend fiercely.” Berry throws down his challenge. “Here is New York City’s chance to atone for Donald Trump: the opening up of a Brian Miller Tiki bar.”
Miller’s own goals for The Polynesian are clear. “The original tropical cocktail movement was Tiki, and many are still not willing to go full Tiki. They just want to do, for example, classic Cuban cocktails, which is a cocktail movement in and of itself—I get that,” he says. “But they’re still avoiding the elephant in the room, which is Tiki. It’s not going anywhere. It’s the last original cocktail movement, and I full-on embrace it. We’re a Tiki bar.”