Bar report: Tropics Bar and Grill at Hilton Hawaiian Village

From left to right: Tropical Itch, Diamond Head, Tropics Banana Daiquiri

Tropics Bar and Grill
In Hilton Hawaiian Village

How could you pass up the opportunity to drink classic tropical cocktails in the place they were invented?

Legendary bartender Harry Yee, who began mixing drinks at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in the 1950s, created the Blue Hawaii, Tropical Itch and other now-iconic drinks during his  30-year reign. Recently, Tropics introduced a new cocktail menu that pays homage to the famous barman, making Tropics my favorite bar to bring visitors hankering for a tropical drink and Waikiki sunset.

The History
For midcentury fanatics (isn't that everybody these days?) Hilton Hawaiian Village has a magnetic, inimitable attraction. Not only was the Hawaiian Village the birthplace for exotica music (ala Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and Alfred Apaka), but thanks to barman Harry Yee, the hotel made a remarkable impact on tropical drinks. It's even been said that Yee was the first to garnish drinks with fresh orchids, backscratchers and tiny parasols.

The Vibe and Menu
Old-timers who recall the Tropics Showroom may be shocked at first by the restaurant's openness, but the atmosphere is definitely for the better. Live, nightly music, attentive service, and the space—open to natural light and tradewinds—help further the sense of place.

It's refreshing to see a modern bar taking its historical connections seriously. The "Tribute to Harry Yee" section, which rolled out this past June, includes nine of Yee's drinks. "So much of Hawaii's cocktail culture is attributed to Harry, and there is so much history at Hilton Hawaiian Village," says Christina Maffei, Director of Restaurants and Bars at the Hilton. "This is my way of paying respect to him."

The rest of Tropics' drink list is a compendium of tropicals, including specialty drinks honoring Hawaii Five-0, and nods to Trader Vic, who famously crafted the Mai Tai.

Tropics also has a full food menu with practically something for everyone. Some of my favorites: the Portuguese bean soup ($8), chicken wings ($12), and the mahimahi fish tacos ($18).

The Drinks
Of the dozen or more visits I made since the new cocktail menu rollout, I found the Harry Yee drinks the best. Sometimes, you can't beat the classics.

Yee allegedly invented the Banana Daiquiri. If he didn't, he at least found a way to make drinking a banana palatable. The secret? A touch of maraschino cherry syrup to add a touch of je ne sais quoi—or as we say in Hawaii, da kine. Locally-produced Old Lahaina Gold Rum and fresh lime juice perfectly complement the banana puree. While I don't usually enjoy bananas outside of pies or breads, the Tropics Banana Daiquiri ($11.50) is certainly an exception.

The Tropical Itch ($14), which comes with its own bamboo back scratcher, sure scratched an itch I didn't know I had—a tiki drink that marries sugarcane rum and whiskey!  Tropics' updated version uses a blend of overproof Wray and Nephew, locally-made Old Lahaina dark rum, and Jim Beam bourbon. These three spirits are matched by Angostura bitters and a sweetened passion fruit puree. The bitters and lilikoi make for a natural pair, bringing forward some delicate spices from the dark rum and bourbon. (I've come here so often, that my car is filled with abandoned back scratchers.)

One thing I've always enjoyed about Harry Yee drinks is his use of non-sugarcane spirits. Yee's Diamond Head ($11), made with London dry gin, apricot brandy, fresh lemon and fresh pineapple juices (and served on the rocks) is a less-stuffy version of the 1920s-era Paradise #2—itself a concoction of another Harry bartender of a famous hotel. (Harry Craddock, the American Bar of the Savoy Hotel in London). If rum tropicals aren't for you, look no further than the Diamond Head.

On the Horizon
Look for new cocktail menus soon at Hilton Hawaiian Village's newly-renovated Paradise Lounge, as well as the Rainbow Tower's Bali Steak & Seafood Restaurant that will re-open in December. (The resort is a bit of a construction mess at the moment.) I'm looking forward to seeing how Hilton continues to embrace its midcentury legacy while embarking on new territory and modern concepts.