For many, the golden age of the tiki bar ended sometime in the 1960s, when the trend went from exciting and novel to hackneyed and mass-produced. Even the cocktail renaissance largely ignored this era in American drinking, with a few exceptions. Yet tiki bars may be the hottest trend in Seattle right now; several recent openings have shown incredible drinks can be found if you honor the original concept.
Tiki bars were primarily about bringing tastes of the exotic and tropical to places that were decidedly less so. As our tastes have gotten more global, ingredients like pineapple no longer wow us the same way, yet our desire to be transported by a cocktail has not diminished, as this boom proves. On the heels of their critically acclaimed restaurant No Anchor, Seattle bar powerhouses Anu and Chris Elford recently launched Navy Strength, their version of a glamorous tiki bar. My colleague Nicole Sprinkle reviewed it last month, commenting on how nontraditional the cocktails were. I’d respectfully disagree: Tiki drinks were always far less codified than we tend to assume, and recipe books from the era show many different approaches to the same drink. It’s this reinvention that makes the current tiki trend exciting.
Nicole also mentioned the far more conventional—in its drinks, at least—No Bones Beach Club. The vegan menu could give some pause, but here tiki drinks are presented in their more traditional form. The Mai Tai and Painkiller both represent flawless executions of their established forms, but while Nicole might long for that familiarity, I found myself wanting at least one unexpected note. In this setting, tiki drinks can be overly sweet, though they are well-crafted.
Perhaps more significant than either of these examples is the new focus on tiki at Canlis. Its recent bar revamp has brought back several takes on tiki drinks that, to me, fit that venerable space well, with a delightful irreverence in what can sometimes feel like a temple of fine dining. Tiki drinks require skill to make properly, and it’s easy to put your faith in the hands of whomever happens to be behind that particular bar.
All that said, it’s not as if 2017 was the first year for tiki drinks in Seattle. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rumba and Sun Liquor, both of which have been offering classic and modern takes on the form for years. Yet this winter was perhaps the best possible time for tiki bars to explode on the scene, because few things cure those seasonal blues like a tasty tropical concoction.