The Bay Area’s 6 Best Tiki Bars
Come for the rum, stay for the exploding volcanoes
Today’s weather forecast: 55 and cloudy.
Yesterday: Same. Tomorrow: Probably the same.
The best antidote? The tiki bar, a longtime Bay Area fixture that lets you pretend like you’re somewhere more exotic without actually, y’know, going there.
The tiki bar was actually born in Oakland in 1934, when soon-to-be-known as “Trader” Vic Bergeron set off for Cuba and embarked upon a close study of the myriad rums the served there. Upon returning home, he moved his bar to Emeryville and christened it Trader Vic’s, complete with the over-the-top decor and island vibes now synonymous with the tiki ideal. (It was also the birthplace of the mai tai, depending on whom you believe.)
And to this day, nobody does tiki and its celebration of the ersatz fun better than the Bay Area, whether you’re looking for post-World War II exuberance or legitimately artisanal cocktails (see: Pagan Idol). Here, our five top choices for torch-lit imbibing — along with the lively-as-ever original.
It all started here. A necessary first stop — unless you’ve been to one of the franchises around the world.
The best possible use of the Fairmont Hotel’s basement, the 70-year-old Tonga Room is so dedicated to the full-on tiki experience that there’s a budget for tropical rainstorm effects. Settle into the red-leather banquettes, spare an ear for the Island Groove band, and send someone brave to the bar for a round of “1944 Mai Tais” — appropriately credited here as a “Trader Vic Original.”
The amazing, just-this-side-of-Pirates of the Caribbean interiors are a credit to the huge imagination of designer Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez, who somehow also produced the equally incredibly but utterly different bar at Whitechapel. (Owner Martin Cate, a man of diverse interests, opened both bars.) On offer: basically every rum produced in the world.
Tiki bars aren’t just over-the-top interiors — there’s some fine craft cocktail-making going on here, too. Trader Vic’s alum Daniel Parks recently landed on the Chron’s list of Bar Stars 2017, alongside his Pineapple Express, with two type of rum, egg whites, lemon juice and passion fruit-vanilla syrup.
The best possible reason to go to Alameda — well, in addition to the flea market — Forbidden Island is the tiki bar to best approximate the actual feeling of being relaxed while on a tropical vacation. Get there if you can for the all-night happy hour on Monday — and keep an eye out for signs announcing the annual luau.
You’re halfway to the ocean at this tiki nook in Outer Sunset — so cuddle up with a Fire Bowl, a blended (naturally) mixture of rum, vodka, gin, fruit juice, and actual fire. Given the location (and the size) this is a relaxed tiki experience — but if you’re out with friends who complain about tiki overwhelm, this neighborhood joint is an appropriate compromise.