Since the 1930s, the tiki trend has popped up in bars all over the country, bringing umbrella-topped libations to gritty dives and swanky cocktail lounges alike. Some cities have lost their fascination with the tropical fad, but in the Bay Area, the tiki torch has never gone out. Since the iconic Trader Vic's (which, while no longer one of the best tiki bars in the area, is still certainly worth mentioning) opened in 1936, quenching our thirst for themed refreshment has been one of the best things to do in San Francisco. With more than 15 tiki bars to choose from, there are bound to be some tiki wannabes in the mix, so we hit the road and sipped Mai Tais from San Mateo to Alameda. Here, without further ado, the ten best tiki bars in the Bay.
The Bay's best tiki bars
Undoubtedly the best tiki bar in the Bay, the decor at Forbidden Island is perfect—over the top and full of kitsch without being a parody. Every detail is just right. The bartenders—all dressed in aloha shirts—are knowledgeable and helpful without being overbearing and can talk tiki for hours. At the end of the day, Forbidden Island is a neighborhood bar full of locals looking to unwind and have a good time. Nothing here is taken too seriously—except for the drinks, which offer a craft take on tiki classics, each one soulful and sophisticated. Try the Painkiller, a potent homage to one of the original tiki pantheons made with pineapple, navy rum, orange and coconut, dusted with spice. Also, Forbidden Island is in Alameda, and Alameda is great. You should go there.
If there was an award for best hidden gem tiki bar, it would go to Longitude in Oakland. The decor is understated by tiki standards—though we love the underwater videos projected on the windows—but pull up to the bar, put yourself in the hands of rum expert Suzanne Long and prepare to go on an alcoholic journey through the history of rum. Longitude serves the best Mai Tai around, hands down (they use homemade almond and macadamia nut orgeat) and the food is inspired by classic dishes from the Caribbean and Africa.
The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar is one of the most improbable drinking destinations in San Francisco. Located in the basement of the glitzy Fairmont Hotel, the one-time pool was transformed in 1945 by a set director at Metro Goldwyn Mayer into a full-blown tiki hallucination: thatched bungalows, a live band playing on a boat floating in a jungle lagoon, and honest to God tropical rainstorms. The Tonga Room is tiki throwback at its non-ironic best. They're famous for their lychee martinis (too sweet, if you ask us), terrible food and overpriced everything, but what the bar lacks in mixology cred it more than makes up for in heart. If the Tonga Room ever closes, San Francisco as we know it would surely not survive.
For years, Smuggler’s Cove was the coolest bar in San Francisco. The bartenders are true tiki fanatics, and their drinks are expertly crafted, esoteric dives into tiki history. The decor at Smuggler’s is straight out of an adventure book: three floors of dark corners, pirate memorabilia and a proper indoor waterfall. Sadly, Smuggler’s has become a victim of its own success. Today the bars—both upstairs and downstairs—are perpetually crowded, bursting with a see-and-be-seen crowd. It can all be very un-tiki. Still, if you take tiki history seriously and want a bit of knowledge with your booze, Smuggler’s Cove can’t be beat. Big drinkers should try the very strong Jet Pilot—the mix of Jamaican and Guyanese rums, lime, grapefruit, cinnamon, herbsaint and a sweet spiced Caribbean syrup known as fulernum goes down all too easily.
The Luau Lounge is just so perfectly strange. Hidden behind Players Sports Grill & Arcade on—wait for it—Pier 39, Luau Lounge seems just barely tiki, more TGI Fridays than Waikiki. But then you order, and a better, stronger and just plain bigger Mai Tai than most slides across the bar. The floor to ceiling windows offer great views of the Bay and far-off Alcatraz, and on a stormy day among the white caps and fog with an oversized cocktail in hand, the sounds of the arcade seem to fade and you can almost hear the pounding of far-off drums.
It’s hard to say whether Bamboo Hut is a dive bar that’s transforming into a tiki bar, or a tiki bar that's slowly eroding into another North Beach dive. Either way, it’s raucous, rowdy and often a little dirty. Don’t expect fireworks behind the bar, but if there was ever a place to order a volcano bowl then this is it. The bowls come in either pineapple or strawberry flavors and are meant to be shared between three or four people. Even when shared, they’re exceedingly strong—the flaming pool of 151 in the center should tip you off. For $20 ($15 during happy hour) the bowls represent one of the best deals in the city, so drink up (note: Bamboo Hut has a famously high tolerance for bad behavior). For those of us who remember when North Beach was full of fun, anything-goes bars like the Hut, partying here can be an emotional experience.
Trad’r Sam is a bit of living tiki history in the Richmond District. In fact, it’s the oldest, longest-operating tiki bar in San Francisco; the bar actually predates the tiki name to the 1930s, when these tropical haunts were known as bamboo bars. Tiki has evolved since then but Sam has not, so those used to the dedication of Smuggler’s Cove or the full-immersion experience of Forbidden Island might find old Sam a bit down-at-heel. Still, we love a good dive as much as a good tiki bar, and this is the best of both worlds. Trad'r Sam is the historic home of the unfortunately named Banana Cow—basically a banana smoothie with rum—and we’re afraid you'll just have to try one.
The Sunset’s only tiki option has a bit of an Epcot Center vibe—maybe it’s the oversized televisions above the bar. Other than that, the decor is great: fake torches, plenty of bamboo and towering tiki masks. The drinks go down well, the staff are unfailingly friendly and the bar has a distinct neighborhood vibe. It’s the kind of place that proudly serves Jageritas (basically a margarita made with Jägermeister), though we’ll stick with the Wiki Wiki Woo: citrus vodka, orange juice, amaretto, pineapple juice, cranberry juice and 151, with a name that's just fun to say. There’s a jukebox, dice and cards, and the drinks are quite cheap despite their strength. It’s hard to imagine having a bad night here.
The Kona Club is an archetypal next generation tiki lounge. The self-described rock n’ roll tiki bar in Oakland serves up carefully constructed, reimagined tiki classics in sumptuous tropical surrounds to a punk rock soundtrack. There are puffer fish lanterns, bamboo walls and an oversized topless islander statue. TVs play Magnum PI on loop and the jukebox offers something for everyone. The one-note Mai Tai is an unfortunate misstep, but all is redeemed by the Nut Chi Chi, an excellent blended drink made with macadamia nuts. Scorpion bowls are also top-notch, but quite strong—so watch out.
Hawaii West is one of those places that gets so much wrong—and yet, somehow, ends up so right. The decor is haphazard, the drinks aren't very good and there's even a pool table (tiki drinkers don't play pool). Still, with its shabby, anything goes attitude, boisterous local clientele and seriously too-strong drinks, Hawaii West will warm you up like the tropical sun. As one of the last bars standing up against the onslaught of the "new San Francisco"—where fussy cocktails and $150 spirit flights abound—Hawaii West is just what we look for in a bar, tiki or not: a home away from home, a therapist's office and, most importantly, a dark little hole to get drunk in.