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Trip Report: San Fran/Sacramento Tiki Death March - 12 bars, 3 days

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This East Coaster took a rare trip to California last week and made the most of it:

Day One
#1 Trader Vic’s
I was BLOWN AWAY by this place. As much as I hate to admit it, the Atlanta Trader Vic’s doesn’t come close. This place has a much more extensive build out. The same themes are there, though - they are siblings, not cousins. You walk in and think: “Oh, this looks like a Trader Vic’s.”

Yet there are big differences. There is a much different cocktail menu (other than the classics). There are drinking vessels that I have never seen before and aifferent menu. The hot towel after the Pupu platter was a nice touch.

All rooms face a yacht club or the Bay. Gorgeous. There is a great rum selection, including Appleton 50-year-old. I had the E’ville Awa and the Seyhorse. Great drinks.

Why do I live on the East Coast?

#2 Kona Club
The Bamboo Ben buildout is outstanding! It is authentic wall to walk to ceiling. I wish the smoke machine in the volcano had been working, though.

I had The Undertow. B+. the cocktail menu has some creativity I’d like to explore, but I have to pace myself. The music does not match, but it isn’t bad music for what it is.

As the bartender said, “we are a neighborhood bar with a tiki theme, not a full on tiki bar.” Worth a visit.

Off Menu
I visited the nearby mausoleum that is Trader Vic’s final resting place. I got there at 3:50. It closes at 4. I scrambled, looking all around to find him, and I couldn’t. (There are 180,000 people buried here, after all.).

I left dejected, but then saw a sign for the office. It was open until 4:30, so I walked in. I asked where Garden Terrace, Crypt 357 is. The man named Eric told me where it was, but said they are now closed. Sensing my disappointment, he took pity on me and walked me over to the building and was ready to unlock the door.

As luck would have it, the door is a glass door and his spot is directly in front of the glass door, so he did not have to unlock it. I spent a quiet moment in prayer and paid my respects.

Then the guy said, “Let me give you a hug, man. I know you are going through something.” We hugged. What an incredibly nice gesture! I could not stop thinking about it, so I called him when I returned home just to thank him for his kindness.

The whole experience sobered me up after my three drinks, so I moved on.

#3 Forbidden Island
This is another great Bamboo Ben built out. It’s full-on tiki. Exotica played in the background. A great surf band, Meshugga Beach Party played later that night. There was a great little outside patio.

I went with the signature cocktail, Forbidden Island. It was just “ok” unfortunately. No doubt a thorough inspection of the menu would uncover some gems.

Then, a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Sacramento.

#4 Dive Bar
This is not a place for cocktails. Go with a beer. It's not a tiki bar either. You go for the mermaid.

There is a mermaid tank is above the bar. It appears to be about 50’ long and 7’ wide. There is a totally cool backdrop inside the tank. It looks like a sunken ship. There are lots of fake seaweed and bubbles, and a few fish.

The mermaid was 15 minutes late for her show. I instantly knew that I have been spoiled by the magnificent Merina and her sirens at the Wreck Bar in Ft. Lauderdale. Here, there was no acrobatics, no swimming. She comes up for air every 15 seconds.

She just preens in a voyeuristic invitation sort of way. She is hot, though, and the color of her scales matched the scales on the mermaid hat I was wearing.

One more mermaid notch in my dive belt.

#5 Jungle Bird
Great place! It is the friendliest of all I visited. The owner, Tyler, works the bar. He is such a nice guy, as is Tommy, the other bartender.

It is small and was packed with a lively crowd. There is a great thatched roof on the bar with hanging lights. The walls are lined with uber cool, tiki wallpaper, rather than the typical bamboo. Great seating area in the back, too. Delightful exotica music was playing but got drowned out by the boisterous crowd.

There were a mix of classics and their own creations on the menu. I started with Spooky’s Lagoon. A killer.

This place has the rare trifecta: the right drinks, decor, and music.

Day 2
Another two-and-a-half-hour drive back to the Bay area, then . . .

#6 Kon-Tiki
Has it right! It has great wall to wall tiki decor. I love the thatched roof on the bar. This one really extends out, beyond the barstool, so you are sheltered by its fond embrace.

Quiet Village was playing. All the bartenders were wearing aloha shirts. Cozy private booths would be great for a group. The place is packed.

I wish the mixtress let her hair down and took off her glasses. There is potential there, that is hidden.

The menu is all classics. A few announce that they are riffs, like mine, the Kon-Tiki Grog. While it was just “ok,” the menu requires a deeper dive. Alas, six more bars to go will not allow.

#7 Bamboo Hut
This one is like a bastard child. Pretty good thatch and bamboo interior, but . ..

Millennial rap crap music blaring. No one over half my age here. $5 cover.

Rum consists of mostly various flavored Bacardis. The drink menu (sticky) is your typical overly-sweet “tropical” drink selection. I asked what was in the Mai-Tai on. I was surprised that the barmaid listed all the right ingredients. However, it was the worst proper ingredient Mai-Tai I have ever had. You have to really try hard to screw up this golden formula.

This bar’s true distinction: In addition to thatch hanging from the bar, there are dozens of bras with signatures on them. I saw one such creation in its formation. A guy with a sharpie in his mouth was signing the bra worn by some chick, dutifully recorded by several cell phones. The chick then takes off bra, climbs on top of bar, and pins it to the top of the bar. I did not dare ask if there was some kind of drink reward for this local custom.

I fear what this generation will do to me when I reach old age.

Day 3
#8 Luau Lounge
Wow! This one vastly exceeded my expectations. It is a hidden gem.

After walking through the ticky taki, tourista Pier 39 on the Bay, I entered The Players Club. After filing past a nondescript bar/ restaurant, then making my way through a maze of kid arcade games, I was definitely expecting the worst.

To my surprise, I found a tiki oasis. There is great tiki decor, including some Trader Vic’s artifacts. Hapa haole music mixed with steel drum music (close enough) played in the background.

The view out the many widows is jaw droopingly spectacular. The white capped waves of the Bay crashed in, with Alcatraz on the left, and the Golden Gate Bridge on the right.

They make a very fine, B+, proper 1944 Mai-Tai, one of a handful of classics on the menu.

Now I’m grading a bit on the curve here. There were plenty of Sex on the Beach type drinks on the menu, but if you stick to what is pure, it all works.

It is only open only 10pm, because the foot traffic dies out by that time. It is a very good choice for the 3-6pm Happy Hour.

#9 Trad’r Sam
I paid homage to the oldest tiki bar in the world.

It has a really cool, old school interior and is holding up much better than I expected (as long as you don’t look too closely.) I’m back in time.

(Actually, I’m jolted into the sad reality of the signs on the wall for Budweiser, “Pabst Blue Ribbon in Cans,” etc., etc. But, hey, it’s tiki. I’m pretending. I’m pretending not to see these things.)

There is a very extensive exotic cocktail list, but judging by the impressive collection of flavored vodkas, Bacardi and Malibu rums, I shudder to think what is in them.

I went with Cap’n Bill’s Grog, with the menu notation: “This will get you shipwrecked.” It was surprisingly passable.

Avoid the bathroom if you can hold it.

#10 Smuggler’s Cove
I sent an email to Martin Cate ahead of time. He said he would not be there that night, but warned me - get there early. There are only 45 seats and usually a line. I got there 15 minutes before opening. First in line!

Second and third in line were a really fun couple. She is more than half way through the extensive drink menu to get a plaque on the wall. They are moving to Boston in May. Crunch time for her.

Now, enough of the intro. . .

OMG! The cocktails! It has been a long career: over 40 years, hundreds of bars, thousands of drinks. Someone had to be the best, and this place is it. This one ranks #1 in my all-time list for the quality of the cocktails. I had three. There is “well balanced” and then there is “perfect.” All three were perfect. It was awe inspiring.

The decor is not strictly speaking tiki, it is “upscale pirate smuggler” – but very impressive. There are three levels. Upstairs has cozy seating, but no bar. Downstairs has seating but there are only TWO SEATS at the bar. Ground level is best, but with only about seven seats there.

I was so mesmerized by the drinks, I don’t even remember the music.

FYI, in a weak moment, if I ever decide to simply disappear, leaving my life in Northern Virginia without notice and without a trace, you will find me in an apartment within stumbling distance of Smuggler’s Cove.

#11 Tonga Room
This is as close as you will come to a tiki palace outside the legendary Mai-Kai in Ft. Lauderdale. The place is huge, will all the upscale Trader Vic’s/Mai-Kai high tiki trappings.

The signature feature is the pool in the middle of the place. Water “rains” down from the ceiling, complete with faux thunder and lightning. Cool.

The place was packed. SRO only with a two and a half hour wait for a table!

I had a Mai-Tai 44 and was expecting the worst, given what I had heard. I give it a B. The huge price matched the huge interior: $16.

This is a must as a one-time bucket list/pilgrimage item. One time only.

#12 Pagan Idol
I walked in to great disappointment. A saw before me a great looking bar, but nothing tiki about it.

Then, I spot a glimpse of a giant tiki and thatch through a door in the back. I walk slowly (because of the alcohol, not for drama) and it is revealed.

Ahhhhh, the most incredible modern era, high tiki build out I have ever seen. Authentic, yet modern.

There were so many individual eye-catching elements: the bubbling fish tank behind the bar, the lighting effects that seems like moonlight is reflecting off the coral rock pool, two of the coziest, most intimate thatched “huts” for a party of 6 or so that I have ever seen.

There is one big drawback - no bar stools in the back back! Just standup, order, and move on. (Didn’t help that it took me 15 minutes to get a drink at this packed place.)

Nice jazz playing, with some exotica.

I had the Dawn Patrol, being intrigued by the cacao, coffee syrup and a toasted marshmallow, and the Maybe Grog, complete with rock candy stick. (love the name). They were truly great, (but I’m spoiled by Smugglers.)

Denouement. ...

Journey’s End by J.R.R. Tolkien:
In western lands beneath the Sun
The flowers may rise in Spring,
The trees may bud, the waters run,
The merry finches sing.
Or there maybe 'tis cloudless night,
And swaying branches bear
The Elven-stars as jewels white
Amid their branching hair.

Though here at journey's end I lie
In darkness buried deep,
Beyond all towers strong and high,
Beyond all mountains steep,
Above all shadows rides the Sun
And Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
Nor bid the Stars farewell.

A very fun read. Thank you for the post.

You are a true Iron Man. Thanks for sharing the fruits of your labor so that we all might live vicariously through you!

Thanks for a great report. If only I was brave enough to attempt this trip, but living in the UK I doubt it will ever happen.
I can just about cope with an organized stop in Vegas. A great blog and I am sure a real asset to many people. Happy Holidays..

Great write-up, and a fun read. Thanks for sharing!

Wow, I really enjoyed reading your post. We live just south of Sacramento and haven't been to most of the places you have seen on this one trip. I'm going to print this as a guide for the future. Thank you for sharing. Wendy

Another Thanks! We're heading up to San Francisco next month - I'm going to have everyone read this as a primer!

Great post. Needs pics or none of it really happened.

Boom Boom,, Thoroughly enjoyed your report. You earned an A+.
Mike Hooker-luved your comment!
Cheers all

WOW! That's one tiki-rrific trip and write up. If and when I get back to San Francisco this will be my guide.

Nice review
We hit 4 of these several days ago


Great post, I concur on most of the opinions and observations. I really need to get up to the Dive Bar in Sacramento

[ Edited by: kevincrossman 2018-02-15 08:29 ]


Wow! I love reports like this. Glad you enjoyed the Bay Area and beyond. I am going to Jungle Bird for the first time on Sunday and am looking forward to it. We are spoiled with a variety of good tiki here which I try to frequent often. Though...not sure I need to rush back to the Bamboo Hut, I like to keep my bra on in public places. :)

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