Tropical Drink Advisory: 10 NYC Tiki Bars

Colleen Clark, 12/28/2010

For years, bars have been peddling speakeasy nostalgia with earnest takes on retro tipples. But the persistent pouring of Granddad's favorite cocktails has started to feel a little, well, old, and it's past time for mixologists to mix things up. That's why we say, "Aloha" to the sudden storm of tiki bars whose boozy gales have been blowing through the City's nightlife scene. The midcentury trend that bought together American-Cantonese cuisine, fruity cocktails and restaurants themed in island decor is making a comeback. From SoHo to Staten Island, spots new and old have been serving up kitschy cups of Polynesian flavor to a new generation of boozers. So kick back, relax and peruse our pupu platter of New York City's best tiki bars—and take yourself to the South Seas without leaving the City.

Photo: Krista (via Flickr)

King Yum
181-08 Union Tpke., 718-380-1918, Fresh Meadows, Queens
Take a look at the origins of tiki mania by visiting this Queens restaurant, which has been around since the trend was first popular back in the 1950s. Walking through its neon pagoda facade delivers you back in time to a dining room whose grass-roofed bar and carved masks remain the same as they were more than 50 years ago. The Americanized Chinese menu bears all the tiki hallmarks—barbecued spareribs, pupu platters—but can be a bit unreliable. What you're really here for is the ambience and the drinks. King Yum is at its best on Wednesday and Friday's karaoke nights, when the stiff mai tais and flaming Mauna Loas loosen up the neighborhood crooners.

Photo: Peter Borghard

Jade Island
2845 Richmond Ave., #14, 718-761-8080, Heartland Village, Staten Island
New York's other long-running tiki-torch bearer is located in a strip mall on Staten Island. Embrace the island spirit by taking a boat (i.e., the Staten Island Ferry) to get there and then hop a cab. The gruesome wood-paneled exterior might be unnerving, but inside you'll find a kitsch-tastic wonderland of backlit tropical murals from the '70s, bamboo hut booths lit by puffer fish lamps and a tiny flowing waterfall adjacent to a mini volcano. Waiters in Hawaiian-print shirts serve up cheap but strong tiki classics in whole pineapples, plastic coconuts and hula girl glasses. Food can be a bit of an adventure—maraschino cherries and flaked coconut figure heavily into blandly sauced Chinese dishes—but the greasy noodle offerings are relatively safe for soaking up all those Coconut Kisses (cocktails of gin and coconut milk).

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Otto's Shrunken Head 
538 E. 14th St., 212-228-2240, East Village, Manhattan
The entrance to Otto's Shrunken Head is flanked by a hula-girl beaded curtain on one side and a trio of tiki heads on the other, and that's to mention just a few of the many kitschy items adorning this divey bar's walls (see also: black velvet paintings of Tahitian hotties). The bar serves up a mix of classic tiki cocktails—the mai tai, the Zombie—as well as house-created masterpieces like the group-size flaming Volcano Blast and the glow-in-the-dark rum punch. They charge a deposit for the glasses, so you can throw back the concoction and walk out with a souvenir or return it and get your cash back. For added ambience, hit the back room, which hosts everything from Polynesian rockabilly bands to quiz nights and surf-rock DJs.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Zombie Hut
273 Smith St., 718-875-3433, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
The grass walls and ceiling of this oldie but goody make it feel like an actual hut. It has all of the trademarks of your average tiki bar—grab-bag Polynesian decor, fruity cocktails—but the real focus here is on the raucous scene. Rowdy groups of young neighborhood types get sloppy on notoriously strong flaming cocktails and four-person Scorpion bowls. (By later in the evening, the carved masks on the wall are often looking down on sloppy couples smooching on couches and friends slurring along to Journey songs.) It may sound like a bit too much, but order yourself a Frozen Zombie bowl, stir it up with a naked-lady swizzle stick and you just might find yourself getting in on the action.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

The Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge
543 Eighth Ave., 212-244-9045, Midtown West, Manhattan
The Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge is situated on a slightly seedy stretch of Eighth Avenue. Inside, bartenders clad in outfits more suitable for the beach (think belly-bearing spandex) serve a mixed-bag crowd of broke Fashion Institute of Technology students, undercover cops and assorted local workers. It's just about the last place that you'd expect to find grass umbrellas and fishing nets with cheery plastic sea creatures. But that's the charm of Wakamba. Come for the tiki curios, stay for the people-watching.

Photo: James Carrillo

Réunion Surf Bar
630 Ninth Ave., 212-582-3200, Midtown West, Manhattan
This restaurant and bar is part tiki, part haute surf shack. Whereas most tiki bars have a general tropical theme, this one focuses specifically on its namesake, a small French island off the coast of Madagascar popular with the hang-ten set. As a result, you'll find drinks made with rhum arrangé (rums with ginger and mangosteen infusions) and, naturally, the old standbys like the Dark & Stormy and mai tai. The food menu leans heavily on surfer grub, including Le Americain, a Réunionaisse sandwich with wonton meatballs, melted cheese and french fries on a baguette. The decor is meant to evoke a beach shack with reclaimed wood and a corrugated tin ceiling lit by Japanese fishing lanterns.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

49 Essex St., 212-777-8454, Lower East Side, Manhattan
One of the leaders of New York's new tiki guard, the Lower East Side's Painkiller mixes Polynesian kitsch with serious cocktail cred. The decorations bring New York flavor to the typical island motifs via a spray-painted portrait of a hula girl and graffiti murals. Behind the bar, Hawaiian-shirted tattooed types mix up the bar's signature Scorpion bowls, flaming punches of terrifying strength made with fresh-squeezed juices and house-made syrups.

Photo: Michael Weber

The Hurricane Club
360 Park Ave. South, 212-951-7111, Flatiron District, Manhattan
The sprawling 13,000-square-foot Hurricane Club is the apotheosis of the tiki trend, its crocodile-leather booths, massive crystal chandelier and coral-shell fireplace a patrician take on the Polynesian theme. (It's got the sumptuous indulgence of its famous forebearer, the now-shuttered Trader Vic's at The Plaza.) Chef Craig Koketsu dubs his tiki cuisine "inauthentic Polynesian," with suckling pig luaus for eight and tamarind-chipotle barbecue spareribs. To-share cocktail bowls are slightly more civilized than those at similar establishments with combinations like champagne, jasmine, coconut and sake. And downstairs you can get a shoe shine and some rum out of an ornate fountain. Aloha.

Courtesy, Lani Kai

Lani Kai 
525 Broome St., 646-596-8778, SoHo, Manhattan
From the folks behind Brooklyn's Clover Club, the newest entry to the tiki scene is the most modern take on the trend. In lieu of faux palm trees and carved masks, you'll find clean-lined wood tables and Capiz-shell light fixtures. Lush orchids and subtle bamboo wallpaper are the only overt nods to the tropical theme. The food and cocktail menus offer similarly new takes on old classics. A crab wonton gets the haute treatment via lump meat and mascarpone. Baby back ribs are expertly grilled and topped with crushed macadamia nuts. The cocktail menu is more wide-ranging, taking tropical tastes to the next level with cocktails like the Pacific Swizzle, a mixture of white rum infused with rose hip, lemongrass and hibiscus tea, lime and passion fruit.

Photo: Stuart Smith

Bikini Bar
148 Duane St., 212-571-6737, TriBeCa, Manhattan
Gone a little tiki crazy? You can bring the islands back to your apartment by visiting Bikini Bar, a TriBeCa boutique selling custom surfboards, swimwear and vintage tropical furniture and accessories. Though they don't technically serve cocktails (well, unless you really hit it off with the husband-and-wife owners), they do have a bamboo bar that shills Kona coffee and a wide range of Hawaiian shaved ices.