Let's Have a Tiki: The Best Places to Get A Mai Tai in the Bay Area

Forbidden Island in Alameda. Photo: Facebook

The past few years have seen a Tiki revival of sorts, as Mad Men has brought all things '50s and '60s new attention. And now a new exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and a companion book Tiki Pop: America imagines Its Own Polynesian Paradise by Sven Kirsten are casting a new light on the artificial jungles and faux Easter Island decor that are Tiki's signatures.

Tiki, named for the Maori mythological "first man," is a romantic vision of tropicalism that traces its roots in Western culture as far back as the first Pacific Island expeditions of James Cook. Hollywood brought hibiscus flowered exoticism to the United States in the '30s with the popularity of nightspot Don the Beachcomber (credited as the first Tiki bar in the US) and a series of island themed films starring saronged actress Dorothy Lamour with titles like The Hurricane, Her Jungle Love and Tropic Holiday.

San Francisco's own Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939 was one of the first official mainland celebrations of authentic Polynesian culture and even included an 81 foot tall statue of "Pacifica: Goddess of the Pacific" as a kind of Tiki Statue of Liberty (since destroyed).

The returning GI's of WWII's South Seas conflict brought back with them not only an appreciation for the look of the islands but also a sort of mixed nostalgia for their time there. James Michener's Pultizer Prize winning Tales of the South Pacific and its Pulitzer Prize winning musical adaptation, South Pacific, are perhaps the greatest examples of mid-century high art Tiki.

Then, there's the so-called "low" Tiki art that took hold post WWII: restaurants, themed motels, dinner plates, living room furniture...Gillian's Island. Once the castaways were stranded after their three-hour tour, Tiki hit a kind of pop pinnacle that meant it could only go down from there. Once plentiful, Tiki destinations have been de-jungled for the most part, but here in the Bay Area, a few classics manage to hold out.

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Trader Vics - 9 Anchor Drive, Emeryville

The original Trader Vic's, which spawned the hugely popular chain, opened in Oakland in the late '30s, but this location has been around since the last blooming of Tiki in the early '70s. The drink and food menus have been crafted into a well-tuned formula and the decor is still gleaming fresh, with the signature Vic's Tiki masks plentifully displayed. The fact that the Emeryville location offers a slight view of the bay from the bar as the sun sets at happy hour makes it even more authentic. If you squint, it could be WWII in Honolulu.

The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar - The Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason, San Francisco

This San Francisco institution first opened in 1945 when the Fairmont Hotel decided to turn their aging indoor swimming pool (added to the hotel in 1929) into a Tiki dream destination. A noted San Francisco landmark, there have been threats of the Tonga Room's closure for years, but, between the tourists staying at the hotel and curious locals, it manages to keep slinging Mai Tais and Singapore Slings night after night. The crowd tends to be a little bachelorette-partyish on the weekends, but after losing yourself in the sound of the indoor rainstorms that happen at regular intervals over the "lagoon" (also home to the house band's floating bandstand), it really won't matter.

Smugglers' Cove - 650 Gough Street, San Francisco

For Tiki purists, Smuggler's Cove might better be defined as a Caribbean bar, but the Chi-Chis here (a coconut/vodka Tiki signature) can't be beat. The Prohibition era Havana themed spot is rightly famous for their rum cocktails and selection of tasting rums, but anything on the menu is a worthy choice. The vaguely private/rum-running/bootlegger decor is heavy on ropes and barrels more than fake jungle, but they get extra points for their indoor waterfall downstairs in the cave-like basement. The smell of chlorine and pineapple in the air are two Tiki standards, so Smuggler's gets a mention for that alone.

Tiki Haven - 1334 Noriega Street, San Francisco

This "vacation destination in the Outer Sunset" is what I'd call a neighborhood Tiki joint. The drinks tend towards the sweet side and the decor is a little more "generic beach Tiki" than some of the more elaborate spots on our list, but the small bar has the advantage of being a Tiki spot off the beaten path where you could potentially walk to the ocean after a few frozen slurpee machine rum drinks.

Trad'r Sam's - 6150 Geary, San Francisco

Sam Baylon's 1937 bar actually pre-dates Tiki proper and was arguably San Francisco's first tropical bar destination. The rattan bar and seating are mostly original, but the place has definitely seen a little wear over the years. Still, the slight fraying at the edges only adds to the decrepit island charm. There's a full Tiki drink menu, but the neighborhood crowd is more of a beers and shots crowd last time I was there. The bartender seemed a little startled when a friend ordered a Mai Tai, but then zipped right to work serving up the rare specialty the bar was once known for.

Forbidden Island - 1304 Lincoln Avenue, Alameda

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Both decor and menu are extremely imagineered in Alameda's first (and so far only) Tiki lounge in the old shopping district: The bar's website even favorably mentions its frequent comparison to Disneyland, and the glowing puffer fish and velvet paintings are a little "Jungle Cruise meets Dirk Diggler's house." In addition to hosting live surf bands, the bar is also known for hosting annual events, including luaus. Where else on the mainland can you attend one of those? If you go on your birthday, you get a free flaming Mai Tai, but you have to drink it fast before the alcohol burns up.

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