Reviving the Tiki Tradition: The 14 Best Tiki Bars on O‘ahu

As a ticky tacky tropical sensation, tiki culture is bigger than Hawai‘i. But, c’mon, what better place to enjoy a fruity, colorful rum cocktail than the Islands? Here, we find the best tiki drinking to be found in Honolulu.


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Photos: Olivier Koning

 

Hawai‘i may not be the birthplace of the tiki tradition (that would be Hollywood, where Don’s Beachcomber Café, the first faux-Polynesian bar, opened in 1934). And some locals may turn up their noses at the wicky wacky, kitsch culture of tiki. But what better place to sip a colorful rum cocktail than Hawai‘i? We’ve got the beaches, the tropical weather, the swaying palm trees. And increasingly, we’ve got talented bartenders crafting high-quality, tropical libations that hearken back to tiki’s golden age. Here, 14 of the best spots to get your tiki on around Honolulu.

 

1. La Mariana Sailing Club

Tucked away at the end of Sand Island Access Road, this oddly charming watering hole is like stepping into a Hawai‘i that no longer exists. As perhaps one of Honolulu’s last remaining authentic tiki bars (if there is such a thing), La Mariana is quite literally where tiki bars go to die, boasting furniture and décor from now-closed tiki legends like Kon Tiki and Tahitian Lānai. Complete with murky aquariums, the watchful eyes of tiki totems and lifeless puffer fish with lights up their butts, La Mariana offers a full menu of fruity rum cocktails including the Zombie (basically a mai tai topped with 151), Tropical Itch (a souped-up mai tai with whiskey) and a classic Piña Colada. Good luck finding parking. And don’t mind the dust.

Open daily. Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pūpū 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., 50 Sand Island Access Road, lamarianasailingclub.com.

 

2. Tiki’s Grill & Bar

Photo: courtesy tiki bar & grill/ eric mansperger

Tiki bars come in all varieties,  from cramped dives to spacious waterfront lounges to, yes, even sanitized commercial joints. Tiki’s Grill & Bar, on the second floor of the Aston Waikīkī Beach Hotel, is the latter kind. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With Tiki’s, you know what you’re getting: guaranteed views of an incredible sunset (weather permitting), nightly live local music and culinary creations from local celebrity chef Ronnie Nasuti. While you’ll be greeted by huge tiki gods and your Surf Mai Tai cocktail will come in a souvenir tiki glass (take-home totem glasses should be prerequisites), what really tiki-fies the atmosphere is its location overlooking the beach. Who wouldn’t want to sip on a fruity rum cocktail as torch lighters run along Kalākaua Avenue at sunset?

Open daily. Happy hour, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. 2570 Kalākaua Ave., tikigrill.com.

 


Why Tiki?

Quality tropical drinks seem to be popping up all over town these days. At Bevy in Kaka‘ako, for example, the selection of artisanal, craft cocktails is joined by an entire menu of classic tiki drinks. We asked bartender Christian Self, why tiki? Why now?

“For us serious bartenders, a lot of the time we’ve been doing drinks that are minimal, clean and classic. So it’s fun to throw a bunch of fruit into a glass, and put an umbrella on there. Tiki is all about having fun. And giving guests a variety they haven’t tried.

“People used to dismiss the mai tai as this tourist drink. We’ve debunked that outdated view of the mai tai in the past few years. So now let’s debunk a few more.

“I like to put my own spin on [these cocktails], my own flavor. With the Painkiller, for example, which is a classic tiki drink, I use a house-made horchata. For the Missionary’s Downfall, I’m not using super-sweet canned pineapple, I’m using pineapple-cardamom syrup or fresh pressed pineapple juice. Tiki drinks aren’t these sickly sweet concoctions. They can have a lot of depth and complexity of flavor.”


 

3. House Without a Key at Halekūlani

Even the most  hardened, hop-loyal brew boy might feel tempted to sip an orchid-adorned drink when sitting shore side at the Halekūlani, under a century-old kiawe tree. Luckily, House Without A Key serves up a full page of classic cocktails as authentic to locals as the refillable bowl of Maui potato chips that greets every guest. Forget the watery, sugary, headache-inducing versions of tiki drinks at lesser bars. Halekūlani’s Blue Hawai‘i, Chi Chi, Halekūlani Sunset and the deceptively drinkable Planters Punch deliver clean, true fruit flavors and enough rum to deliver a paradise punch after a few rounds. Don’t ignore the signature mai tai, featuring three kinds of Bacardi, orange curacao, orgeat and rock-candy syrup. The Halekūlani offers the recipe online, but we’d rather let the experts whip it up while we watch the sun set with an unimpeded view of Diamond Head.

Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m daily. 2199 Kālia Road, halekulani.com.

 

4. Paradise Lounge

From Boston to the Bay Area,  the tiki revival has seen a resurgence of bars offering that super-size communal drink known as the Scorpion Bowl. In all of Honolulu, however, we found just one bar on the Scorpion Bowl bandwagon: the Paradise Lounge at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. While Trader Vic’s original scorpion bowl had 15 ingredients, this one has just six, including rum and okolehao. But no worries, this bugga can still put the sting on three of you at once. If you’ve always wanted to stare down a long straw into one of these communal cauldrons of fun, better round up the gang and get down to Paradise Lounge soon. A new beverage manager is looking to revamp the Hilton’s drink list, and there’s no guarantee the Scorpion Bowl will make the cut.

Rainbow Tower, Hilton Hawaiian Village, 2005 Kālia Road, 949-4321, hiltonhawaiianvillage.com/dining/bars.

 


 

Tiki Party

If you’re entertaining at home, instead of fixing everyone an individual, complicated drink, just make one big Scorpion Bowl. As Christian Self says, “It’s more of a party when you all share.”

Recipe:

  • 6 oz. fresh-squeezed orange juice

  • 4 oz. fresh lemon juice

  • 6 oz. Puerto Rican light rum, either Don Q or Bacardi

  • 1.5 oz. orgeat (almond syrup)

  • 1 oz. brandy

  • 2 cups crushed ice

Directions:

Pour into a blender, blend for 10 seconds and pour into a tiki bowl. Enjoy. Serves 3 or 4; make sure there are enough straws
for everyone!

 


 

5. Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel

The Royal Mai Tai

Somewhere between the complex cocktail that was Trader Vic’s original 1944 mai tai and the high-fructose umbrella drink that passes for a mai tai today, there is a missing link. And that somewhere is the Mai Tai Bar, along the beach at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. This is where Trader Vic himself, in 1953, tweaked his original mai tai, introducing orange and pineapple juices, and making the drink easier for Waikīkī bartenders to whip out en masse. The Royal Mai Tai, as it’s called, is back on the menu today. And even though you can blame it for launching the de-evolution of the well-balanced, multilayered original mai tai, it is not in itself a bad drink. In fact, it’s delightful—as last hurrahs before big downfalls often are.

Royal Hawaiian Hotel, 2259 Kalākaua Ave., 923-7311.

 

6. The Pig and the Lady

The Pig and the Lady  lacks the tiki-tacky atmosphere that often accompanies rummy cocktails. But its Chinatown-by-way-of-Portland vibe, with exposed brick walls, high ceilings and drinks in mason jars, does make a fitting backdrop for creative, well-executed drinks. Bar manager Kyle Reutner makes some of his own drink ingredients and serves up locally made Kō Hana agricole rum, sugar cane juice and lime in a drink called Kunia Road. The 10K cocktail includes rum, macadamia nut orgeat and lime. And our nomination for the best cocktail name, and the most exotic ice, goes to the Cobra Commander, which features avocado-infused mezcal, pink-grapefruit liqueur and sriracha ice. The food is creative without being fussy, so it pairs well with drinks hinting of mystery and romance without the kitschy containers.

83 N. King St., 585-8255, pigandthelady.com.

 

7. Rumfire

Rum has been the animating spirit of tiki culture from the beginning, when a former bootlegger named Don the Beachcomber started serving potent rum cocktails at his faux-Polynesian Hollywood bar in 1934. In Honolulu, 80 years later, no place is more devoted to this spirit than Rumfire at the Sheraton Waikīkī Hotel. It’s got some 80 rums on a menu organized by the rum-making nations of the world: five rums from Barbados, 10 from Puerto Rico, two from Nicaragua, and so on. Pull up a seat at the elegant bar with the backlit Balinese glass, or find a spot at the sleek outdoor fire pit, and consider the High-Maka Mai Tai, which uses 23-year-old Ron Zapaca rum from Guatemala. As the menu says, “We’re not saying this mai tai is better than others” but “we certainly think it’s better than most.”

Sheraton Waikīkī, 2255 Kalākaua Ave., 922-4422, rumfirewaikiki.com.

 

 

8. Hau Tree Beach Bar

Tropical Itch

Among tikiphiles, the Hilton Hawaiian Village is hallowed ground. After all, this is where legendary barman Harry Yee invented some of the most classic tiki drinks, including the Blue Hawai‘i, the Banana Daiquiri, the Hawaiian Eye and the Tropical Itch (complete with backscratcher as swizzle stick). Of the Hilton’s four bars, the open-air Hau Tree Beach Bar is our favorite. That’s partly because it’s the most relaxed, snuggled between the Super Pool and the beach, in the shade of an ancient hau tree intertwined with its arbor roof. And it’s partly because of Joe, the head bartender, who remembers the day in 1970 when Yee hired him as a busboy as if it were last week. Go off-menu with him, and he’ll whip up a tropical libation exactly the way the master taught him. With the Blue Hawai‘i, for instance, he’ll omit the rum and double up the vodka, because “That’s the way Harry did it,” he says.

Hilton Hawaiian Village, 2005 Kālia Road, 949-4321, hiltonhawaiianvillage.com/dining/bars.


 

9. Monkeypod Kitchen

The wooden surfboard décor, tiki torches and open-air ambiance in this Ko Olina restaurant might make you wonder if you drove to a Neighbor Island. Resort drinking can be a pricey endeavor, but luckily Monkeypod’s happy hour drops its culinary cocktail prices from $12.50 to a respectable $8. And the tiki drinks here are the real deal. The mai tai includes two kinds of rum, lime, house-made macadamia nut orgeat and orange curacao, topped with honey-liliko‘i foam. The more unusual Pod Thai combines light rum, crème of coconut, lime, lemongrass-cardamom syrup with Thai basil and even comes in a two-faced tiki glass goblet. Arrive before sunset and you’ll be rewarded with live entertainment—a blend of contemporary Hawaiian and pop—but bring your shades: The bright afternoon sun can cut through the restaurant. Parking is free.

92-1048 Olani St., Kapolei, 380-4086, monkeypodkitchen.com.

 

10. Wailana Cocktail Lounge

Hidden in the corner of the Wailana Coffee House is a tiki treasure, a real-life, circular bamboo-and-lauhala hut called the Wailana Cocktail Lounge. The vibe is old school all the way, with a padded bar, comfy booths around the perimeter of the lounge, and a bartender, Pepper, who looks like he’s been serving drinks since Waikīkī was first dredged up from the marshes. We visited the Lounge on a Tuesday night and, while the mai tais weren’t on special ($5 instead of a discounted $4), the live music more than made up for the full-price drinks (after one mai tai sugar bomb, we switched to beer, anyway). Kevin Mau played a parade of local favorites—“Bali Ha‘i,” “Hawaiian Cowboy,” and “Don’t Be Cruel”—to a packed house of obvious regulars, and by the time Uncle Kimo hopped up to dance a raunchy hula to Andy Cummings’ “Waikīkī,” we were smitten.

1860 Ala Moana Blvd., 955-1764.

 

11. Bevy

Kaka‘ako’s Bevy feels like modern urban industrial bar meets neighborhood watering hole. While this sounds like an unlikely setting for tiki drinks, turns out there’s a bit of hidden treasure here worth exploring. Owner Christian Self’s menu is all about discovering flavors with seven classic tiki drinks, most not served by other local bars, plus a killer mai tai. You’ve got to love a place that serves a Painkiller, a Scorpion, a Zombie and a drink called the Missionary’s Downfall. However, the Test Pilot won us over completely with layers of flavor from Jamaican and Puerto Rican rum, falernum, lime, bitters, anise and (insert conga drum roll) a paper airplane as garnish. Combine with $1 oysters during happy hour and an expanding tapas menu and you’ve got a mighty good excuse for a weeknight pau hana with friends.

661 Auahi St., 594-7445, bevybar.com.

 

12. Chart House

The Chart House  is the steak-and-seafood-restaurant equivalent of an immaculately kept classic car. It is a cultural time capsule, so pristine in its dark-wood, nautically themed decor, it holds the power to transport you straight back to 1967, the year of its vintage. Only the staff, apparently, has aged, including grey-bearded bartender Guy Maynard, who has been slinging fine tropical drinks at The Chart House since the early days. Devotees of his mai tai insisted on calling it the Guy Tai long before the restaurant gave in and put the Guy Tai on the menu. Among the other concoctions that might pair nicely with a 20-ounce rib eye is the house bloody mary, the Bloody Malia, spiced with Hawaiian chili-pepper water. Or consider the Nēnē Goose Shot Down Over Makawao, with Southern Comfort, Yukon Jack, crème de banana and pineapple juice. One too many and the nēnē is going down with or without a bullet in it.

1765 Ala Moana Blvd., 941-6669, charthousewaikiki.com.

 

13. Arnold’s Beach Bar

Don’t ask for a cocktail menu here. There isn’t one. At this hidden dive off Saratoga Road, which prides itself on being Waikīkī’s last remaining “real” tiki bar, the drinks are at once standard and classic. Where else in Waikīkī can you get a $5 Mai Tai, Tiki Tea or Blue Hawai‘i? We, however, suggest shelling out the same amount of money for Arnold’s tiki-style mimosa, made with coconut champagne. Once a horse stable, Arnold’s is today lined wall-to-wall with lauhala, decked in vintage photographs of hapa-haole hula girls and protected by tiki totems everywhere you turn. You’ll also find locally made rum and drafts. The spirit of tiki culture, we’re told by Arnold’s general manager, Daniel Wheatley, is “affordably priced drinks for average people.” In which case, that spirit is alive and well and living at Arnold’s. Open daily. Live music 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. All day $5 cocktails.

339 Saratoga Road, arnoldswaikiki.com.

 

14. Salt Bar and Kitchen

1944 Mai Tai

In almost every respect, Salt feels like the exact opposite of a tiki bar. It’s got a compact, two-story layout featuring black-and-white art photo prints, a spendy tapas-style menu including beet salad and Jidori chicken, as well as an accomplished wine and beer list. In the middle of all this sleek modernity, though, appearing like a tropical mirage, is the 1944 mai tai. It’s based on Trader Vic’s original 1944 recipe and served up in a one-of-a-kind ceramic tiki mug. (We ordered two, and got a different mug each time.) The mai tai is perfectly balanced, so tasty that we declared it the Best in Honolulu in our July issue, and the mug is colorful enough to transport you to tiki land, despite the hip urbanites on either side of you at the bar.

3605 Wai‘alae Ave., 744-7567.

Editor’s Note: Salt Bar and Kitchen closed shortly after this story was published.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2017