The start of summer tends to bring a fresh round of tiki trend pieces in various media outlets. But as the shadows grow longer, the wind gets meaner, and we begin to be forced indoors, this is the true Tiki Season. These artificial paradises aren’t as necessary when the sun is shining, they’re needed when the snow is blowing. Now, in preparation for the coming winter, here are Critiki’s Best Tiki Bars in the World for 2015.
These are the ten best tiki bars found in the world today, as rated by the best tiki experts around: the members of Critiki. Critiki is a travel guide and historic archive of Polynesian Pop culture hotspots around the world, with information on over 850 tiki bars, restaurants, hotels and more. Critiki has over 6,000 members, tiki lovers who have shared their stories, mementos, pictures, and over 50,000 ratings of the places in Critiki, in an effort to guide their fellow tiki seekers to the good stuff.
Any list of the best tiki places that isn’t topped by the Mai-Kai is to be ignored. There’s simply no matching the Mai-Kai, in either the grand scale, or the minute attention to detail in the decor. The Mai-Kai has multiple dining rooms, each themed for a different island group, a literal ship-shape bar, a gift shop, winding tropical gardens, musicians, dancers, and an array of Oceanic art and culture on display every way you turn. The rich history of the Mai-Kai, a family-run institution for 60 years (not counting the years more that much of the original staff spent at Don the Beachcomber in Chicago) means that no other venue provides such a transporting experience to the heyday of American Polynesian fine dining.
When Martin Cate co-created Forbidden Island in Alameda, it was the first modern bar to demonstrate that high quality tropical cocktails could be viable as a business, and the path was to not cut any corners but rather to dive in with both feet. That captured the attention of tikiphiles worldwide and it was a big hit in the local bar scene, but it was Martin’s solo sophomore effort, Smuggler’s Cove, that brought that message to the world’s stage. Now one of the most famous and lauded bars in the world, Smuggler’s Cove is a marvel of tropical drink execution. It is packed any day of the week, but the master bartenders—themselves heralded as some of the best in the world—keep the rum, citrus and spice flowing quickly and make it look easy (it is not). The space is a love letter to the nautical history of rum first, and tiki second, but Martin’s knack for visual storytelling means that hardcore tikiphiles will feel right at home the moment they set foot in the door.
When Blair Reynolds bought the modern tiki bar Thatch and turned it into Hale Pele, he’d had the benefit of having spent more than a few evenings daydreaming about what he would do if the space could only be his. Once it was, he hit the ground running, and hasn’t let up. Each return visit to Hale Pele reveals some wonderful new improvement to the space, and Hale Pele is regularly atop lists of the best bars in Portland. The cocktails have been outstanding from Hale Pele’s day one. The first improvement Blair brought was to level up the drink menu, informed by his longtime passion for making drinks at home, and by his own successful line of tiki-skewed cocktail syrups, B.G. Reynolds. Rare for a smaller tiki bar: a food menu that while modest in scope, is outstanding in execution.
Tiki-Ti has some things in common with the Mai-Kai: it’s just five years younger, it also has a strong Don the Beachcomber pedigree, and it’s still family run… but that’s about where the similarities end. While the Mai-Kai is the grandest of tiki bars out there, Tiki-Ti may be the smallest. But that is its strength: spending an evening at Tiki-Ti feels like you’ve been invited to the most fun, informal, intimate house party in Hollywood. Tiki-Ti turns strangers into friends like no other place I’ve been, and when you’re a regular, you’re family. The decor looks more like your crazy uncle’s garage than an elegant showpiece, but it’s still got that transporting magic. The drink menu is daunting: dozens of nonsensically-named drinks, no pictures, no descriptions, but don’t worry… one of your half-dozen new friends will help you find a good one.
Frankie’s has quickly become the absolute must-see tiki destination in Las Vegas, a city that had been aching for just this sort of spot for years. The bones are full-on tiki, with thatch, bamboo and tapa everywhere, with pieces by modern tiki artists all over. This place is unmistakably Vegas, though: no outside light, and no last call… Frankie’s is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Forbidden Island was revolutionary when it opened. The common refrain had been that serving truly complex tiki drinks in a full-on environment wasn’t a viable business; the drinks were too complicated and too expensive, that people would balk at sitting in a bar where they couldn’t catch the football game and hear Top 40 music. Forbidden Island didn’t just prove that a real, fully-formed tiki bar was possible, it proved that it was a path to huge success. Now the model has been emulated all over the world. Forbidden Island is still drawing a steady stream of people to the sleepy Mayberry-esque town in which it’s nestled.
The Trader Vic’s in Atlanta is the last of the golden era Trader Vic’s in the United States (though some excellent ones remain outside of the U.S.). Found in the basement of the Atlanta Hilton, there’s no better place stateside to get a sense of what Trader Vic’s meant in the history of tiki. It opened at the late end of the peak of tiki, in 1976, and is slightly newer than the flagship location in Emeryville, California—but has escaped much of the remodeling that stripped Emeryville of its historic interest.
Foundation has earned rave reviews from locals and visitors alike, and deserves to be better known. Its roots are unusual: it started as a punk bar, owner Don Nelson started to bring in some tiki elements, and then the metamorphosis was complete when he let his love for tiki take over thoroughly. Today, the fully-encrusted tiki haven serves up stellar drinks in a beautiful environment with enchanting music to match.
This Don the Beachcomber doesn’t actually have much to do with the famous chain that started the tiki craze back in the ’30s… but it does have its own historic importance as the site of Sam’s Seafood. Sam’s Seafood served as the area’s preeminent special occasion Polynesian restaurant for many decades, until it closed in 2007. Don’s is just Sam’s with a new label and a thoughtfully refreshed interior, and it has brought new life to this oceanside mainstay. There are multiple dining rooms, a special event room, and a lovely, dark bar, with wonderful vintage tiki touches throughout.
Many of those who love tiki bars trace it back to a childhood experience at the Enchanted Tiki Room attraction at Disneyland, with a lot of wishing for a fine tropical rum drink there over the years. Someone got ahold of a genie or a leprechaun or something, because it finally happened a few years ago when Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar opened at the Disneyland Hotel. The drinks are a little on the simple side, catering to people on vacation who aren’t in the habit of regular drinking, and the space could use some heavier crusting of decor, but these quibbles are made up for by the wonderful Disney hospitality and imagineering that went into the space. There’s no better place for a tiki lover to take a break from a day at the park.
Disagree with this list? Good news: the power to change it is in your hands. Rate your favorite locations on Critiki (and just as important: the places you’ve been that didn’t quite move you). While you’re at it, share your photos, and your own stories of trips to these places. If you’re already a Critiki member, you can look over the ratings you’ve made in the past, which is a great way to catch if you need to update your rating, or if there are places you’ve missed.
Some places that didn’t quite make the cut, either with a very close score, or because there haven’t been enough ratings yet: Tonga Hut in Palm Springs, Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, Lei Low in Houston, Trader Vic’s in Munich, The Shameful Tiki Room in Vancouver, B.C., Longitude in Oakland.