Island life

LLNYC explores the enduring appeal of the tiki bar and a drinks culture that’s moved beyond kitsch

Drinks at Mother of Pearl, including Forbidden Fruit, far right
Drinks at Mother of Pearl, including Forbidden Fruit, far right

Tiki — with its grinning mugs and plastic naked-lady stirrers — is easily disregarded as a kitschy fad. While it certainly embraces fun, a drinks movement that’s been around since the 1930s should not be so deftly dismissed.

A romanticized vision of island life that offered an evening of escapism, tiki bars spread in the years after World War II before fading in the 80s and 90s. New York City lost its Trader Vic’s outpost when Donald Trump, then the owner of the Plaza, closed down the longtime Polynesian bar in 1989. He reportedly thought it was tacky. But tiki is back with a vengeance.

At Polynesian restaurant Mother of Pearl, on Avenue A, mixologist Jane Danger ticks off the reason tiki is so popular today: “Guests are into more visually entertaining drinks. The bars and patrons are taking themselves less seriously since we’ve already got a solid base knowledge of the classic going … And social media — the drinks are attractive and Instagramable for sure.”

Head into any of the tiki bars that have sprouted around the city and you’ll find a slice of island life. There’s fun decor, Polynesian paraphernalia, tropical flavors galore and bartenders who know how to elevate these drinks far beyond their kitsch beginnings.

“The drinks are attractive
and Instagramable for sure.”
—Jane Danger, Mother of Pearl

Rum reigns supreme when it comes to the tiki palate but also expect coconut, pineapple, mango, banana and passion fruit flavors, plus citrus oils, and other subtle and surprising flavors like almond, cinnamon and nutmeg.

At 538 East 14th Street is Otto’s Shrunken Head. Owned by Nell Mellon and Steve Pang, Otto’s is described as NYC’s premier rock-n-roll tiki joint, and it’s definitely the only venue mentioned here that hosts a sex Q&A once a month.

Otto’s serves up a mix of classic tiki tipples alongside their house-brewed concoctions, which include the Scurvy Dog, a fiery mix of butterscotch and cinnamon vodka, and Otto’s Octane, a potent mixture of pineapple rum, coffee liqueur and banana. For those with a sweet tooth looking for a dessert drink, they have a Frozen German Chocolate Cake, “which is basically a grown-up milkshake with booze.” said Mellon.

Meanwhile further south at 151 Rivington Street is the aptly named 151. The low-key subterranean joint works their blenders and slushie machines hard and delivers (among other things) sumptuous frozen drinks that have a tiki influence.

The citrus-driven Show Me State is an icy potion of dry orange curaçao, orange juice and mezcal. Although the ingredients are unorthodox — there’s no rum — the fruity flavors are undeniably tropical. And for indisputable tiki, 151 delivers Piña Coladas beefed up with cognac and a float of Angostura bitters.

At Mother of Pearl, a classy kind of tiki bar with hand-painted walls, banana leaf wallpaper and white curtains, the showstopper is the Shark Rye. Bourbon, curaçao, passion fruit, maraschino and lemon are combined and served in a shark mug. The pièce de résistance is the blood red tiki bitters, which gets drizzled theatrically around the shark’s mouth tableside.

“Decor, cocktails, music and tiki mugs are all very important,” said Mellon. “But coming into a tiki bar and feeling like you’ve been transported to a fun carefree environment is what is crucial to me.” And in the hustle of New York City, carefree is certainly something we need more of.