Ian Rates Stuff, Episode #04:

The Top 11 Tiki Bars in the United States

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
January 24, 2017

If you haven’t been to a tiki bar—possibly due to some vague, unfounded fear of walking into a place packed with middle-aged Jimmy Buffet fans in Hawaiian shirts—you’re missing out big time. Like any other type of restaurant, tiki-themed bars come in every size and style: at the Trader Vic’s in the Beverly Hills Hilton, the bartenders wear bow ties; at Otto’s Shrunken Head in Manhattan, the mohawked bartender can’t hear you over the Sex Pistols album blaring through the speakers. What I’m saying is, you’re reaching into a mixed bag here.

So, after visiting a whole bunch of them across the country, I thought I’d make a list of my eleven favorite places to get a tropical cocktail in the United States. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in one of the following cities, do yourself a favor and check out a bar on the list below. You’ll love it. I promise.

#11: Latitude 29 — New Orleans, LA

Latitude 29 — New Orleans, LA

Starting my countdown off right, Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 is truly the tiki bar’s tiki bar. It’s not every day a respected cocktail author gets the chance to open their own bar, with the freedom and drive to ensure every detail is perfect—But that’s exactly what happened when the famed Beachbum Berry, already a legend in the tiki recipe community for decades, opened his bar and kitchen in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

This place checks every box, then invents new boxes, and checks those too. The drinks are way strong, the presentation and atmosphere are immaculate beyond what should be humanly possible, and the food is delicious. If you’re in New Orleans it would be a mistake to miss this polished, purist tiki haven.

#10: Frankie’s Tiki Room — Las Vegas, NV

Frankie’s Tiki Room — Las Vegas, NV

Frankie’s, like Las Vegas itself, is a fully-immersive experience that all but guarantees you’ll lose track of time, money, and text messages you were supposed to respond to. The deep, cavernous interior and straightforward, organized-by-alcohol-strength menu allows you to forget the time, the size of your bar tab, and really, the rest of the world.

Vegas knows how to party. Go here and party.

#9: Tiki Tolteca — New Orleans, LA

Tiki Tolteca — New Orleans, LA

You could be forgiven for missing Tiki Tolteca on your last trip to New Orleans. It’s only accessible through the fire escape stairs at the back of a Mexican restaurant that’s about fifty feet from Latitude 29, the #11 tiki bar on my list. So even though this place has the deck stacked against it, it really delivers one hell of an experience.

Sprawling and loungey, with a few drinks whose preparation involves mini-flamethrowers (the ceiling is singed and discolored above the bar from the pyrotechnics), you feel truly at home in this come-as-you-are paradise, and that’s before you realize they have burrito delivery from the restaurant downstairs. Bottom line: If you leave this place and say you aren’t in an awesome mood, you’re a liar.

#8: Smuggler’s Cove — San Francisco, CA

Smuggler’s Cove — San Francisco, CA

This overwhelming, multi-level getaway—often feeling more like a Pirates of the Caribbean set than a bar—breathes life into an otherwise sketchy neighborhood of San Francisco. And it’ll breathe life into you, because, man, Smuggler’s Cove is just straight up fun.

The drinks, menu, staff, and décor are top-notch, and you’re more likely than not to spy someone sipping shots of rum and jotting down tasting notes in their rum-diaries, as Smuggler's has maybe the finest collection of rums in the US. Come in and let this place envelop you; there may not be another place quite like it in the entire world.

#7: Super Power — Brooklyn, NY

Super Power — Brooklyn, NY

Full disclosure: Super Power would be considered my “home tiki bar”. But trust me, I’m trying my best to be impartial here.

Smack in the middle of a predictable Brooklyn neighborhood is this oasis of unpredictability. Brilliant branding, tasty drinks, a pinball machine, and delicious banh mi veggie dogs? All in a non-descript tiki bar that most hipsters would just assume is populated by weird uncles in khaki shorts? Sign me up!

Go there and tell ’em Ian sent ya. They won’t know what you’re talking about and it’ll be weird. Who cares? You’ll be drunk after one drink anyway.

#6: Bootlegger Tiki — Palm Springs, CA

Bootlegger Tiki — Palm Springs, CA

Okay, picture this: You’re walking through downtown Palm Springs, in the California desert. It’s 119°F outside. You start feeling sun-strokey, so you duck into this tiny, double-doored bar called Bootlegger Tiki. Maybe they’ll have a cool drink.

It takes at least five minutes for your eyes to adjust from the searing desert sun to the pitch-black interior. The 70°F conditioned air feels like you’ve stumbled into a meat freezer. At the bar, a drink is on fire. And ten minutes later, you’re wondering how your delicious tiki drink 1) disappeared so fast, and 2) got you this drunk. You also start wondering whether you can simply start over and begin a new life living in this bar booth, rather than face the real world outside those doors.

But, eventually, everyone has to leave this tropical paradise and face the real world. And it hurts. But you won’t soon forget the hour you spent in the desert, wondering why anyone would choose to live anywhere but inside this magnificent tiki bar.

#5: Lei Low — Houston, TX

Lei Low — Houston, TX

Lei Low—a strip-mall gem in a dicey Houston north-side neighborhood—is precisely what it would look like if you gave a casual fan of tiki an unlimited budget to decorate their own bar. Everything here is alive, earnest, and straightforward. That goes for the menu and drinks too.

In addition to giving it fifth place here, I’m also giving Lei Low my “Most Likely to Improve” award. It’s the newest bar on my list, and I think it’ll only improve even further as it matures. If you’re in H-Town, visit here early and visit here often. You’ve got a real good thing going.

#4: Jade Island — Staten Island, NY

Jade Island — Staten Island, NY

This place is nuts. Absolutely, thoroughly nuts. Buried in the middle of Staten Island, a New York borough better known for its conservative voters and suburban sprawl than its bar scene, Jade Island raises eyebrows and then singes them off with the heaviest and most delicious drink menu east of Chicago.

Jade Island is a Chinese restaurant from the 1970s, shoehorned into a giant, boring strip mall, and it’s more likely to host a middle school graduation party than a wild tiki blowout… But when a $9 drink comes to your table this strong, piled with this many fruit slices, umbrellas and straws, you just know the rest of your night is canceled. This place is just nuts.

Even writing this review right now, I still can hardly believe this place exists. It shares a parking lot with a dollar store and a Target, it’s almost exclusively patronized by families with children, it hasn’t updated its décor since Jimmy Carter was President… But this is simply one of the best bars—tiki or otherwise—that I’ve ever been to.

#3: Lost Lake — Chicago, IL

Lost Lake — Chicago, IL

My cousin Neal always tells me that I’m habitual to a fault. If I find something I like, he says, I get so attached that I never branch out and try something new. Something that I might like even more. I think he’s totally right about that, and I find those words usually inspire me to try new things. Except when I’m in Chicago.

Every time I’m in Chicago for the rest of my life I will try to only drink at Lost Lake, every single time.

This place is just the world’s best traditional bar that happens to also serve perfect tiki cocktails. Its entrance is off to the side of a tiny Chinese take-out restaurant, and stepping through that curtain, you’re transported to one of the most inspired and hip themed bars in America. Every drink on their tiny menu is phenomenal; and all the drinks I tried from their enormous, secret menu are even better.

The bartenders love their craft and, no matter how crowded it is, some part of you will feel like you’ve got the place to yourself. In direct contrast to the city’s other big “tiki bar”, Lost Lake has captured everything that makes tiki great and has it on full display.

Go here, Chicago. Go here always.

#2: Tiki-Ti — Los Angeles, CA

Tiki-Ti — Los Angeles, CA

Probably the two most conflicted decisions I’ve ever made in my life were deciding to leave my job of eight years to move across the country, and putting Tiki-Ti in second place instead of first on this list.

If you don’t know the history of this place, check out my other article about it. Its history, its menu, its culture, its atmosphere, its décor, its everything is impeccable. Truly one-of-a-kind. There has never been another Tiki-Ti and there probably never will be.

One day I’ll forgive myself for putting it second on my list. But until that day, I can only condole myself with fond memories of my time at the bar I’ve put in first place…

#1: Hale Pele — Portland, OR

Hale Pele — Portland, OR

It’s difficult to overstate just how right Hale Pele feels. There’s some pure mood, the perfect combination of relaxed and drunk, while being immersed in nautical kitsch and tropical hokiness that every tiki bar attempts to emulate. Hale Pele serves that mood up with laser-guided precision. They define that mood.

From the bridged stream at the entrance, to the special effects thunder-and-rain showers, to the flaming drinks shooting fire ten feet high with each pinch of cinnamon thrown on top; this place nails it. Absolutely, decisively nails every bit of it.

Giving it first place on my list, ahead of Tiki-Ti, had to come down to a little bit of nit-picking. Yes, Tiki-Ti is cash-only, does not provide bar tabs, has only twelve bar stools, and is only open Wednesday through Saturday. And even though lacking in those four areas lends to its inimitable character, I must admit, Hale Pele wins convenience points by providing them.

I really don’t know how one place could get everything so right. But this under-the-radar Portland strip mall bar did it. And if you want to experience what I would call the essence of a modern tiki bar, visit Hale Pele, and lose yourself in the rum.