The First Wave
The first wave of the Tiki revival hit New York ten years ago with the opening of bars like Zombie Hut (Brooklyn), Otto's Shrunken Head (14th Street), the Lei Bar in Niagra's basement (Ave A),the clubby Tiki Room (Flatiron), and the kitsch 1950s Polynesian themed Waikiki Wally's (East Village). These places were heavy on retro kitsch factor and gimmicks. The worst offender was the Tiki Room, an awful nightclub in the Flatiron district that catered to the B&T. This place had wide screen HDTVs over the bar and their cocktail program was closer to a Spring Break bar than the Tonga Room. In our opinion, they were straight up poseurs more interested in capitalizing on a trend than paying attention to the history and craftsmanship of the genre. Other bars like Otto's Shrunken Head and Zombie Hut got the ambiance and inspiration right when they first opened. It seemed like they were taking pages out of the Trader Vic's play book circa 1956. Unfortunately, the same attention to detail and quality was lost at the bar. The main criticism of the first wave is the lack of fresh ingredients, proportioned pouring, and artisanal touch that has come to typify the new generation of top cocktail bars. However, in all fairness, they were not all mediocre drinks and sugary hang overs. I do thank them for putting Tiki back on the radar after forty years in the vault.
The Desert Island
In recent years, there have been some gems among the coal. A disciple of Tiki, Brian Miller of Death & Company and Joe Swifka of Elettaria preached the gospel of Don the Beachcomber in his classics. Miller slayed notions of the genre's fad with reinterpretations of the classic island cocktails. My favorite being a Gin version of the Zombie called the Winchester. This concotion stays true to the Zombie formula but uses three types of gin in lieu of rum. A Swifka original is the Black Pearl, which is Tiki-fied old fashioned using Cruzan Black Strap rum in addition Old Forester Bourbon as the base spirits. This proved Tiki was not pigeon holed. Quality ingredients and creativity kept the genra alive in the late-2000s when the trend and flavor of the month establishments like the Tiki Room and Waikiki Wally's were washed away. Thank the Tiki Gods for Elettaria's Tiki Mondays!
Once again the trade winds are guiding us to the Forbidden Island, so queue the Les Baxter but also add Desi Arnaz to the mix. This time around prepare for cocktails made correctly! The wave is moving from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic. In San Francisco, Smuggler's Cove which opened in December 2009, has 70 plus cocktails on their menu and top talent from West Coast bar scene rolling the drinks. In New York, Painkiller is under construction in the Lower East Side. The noticeable differences with these bars is they draw their inspiration from the Caribbean in addition to the South Seas. They should really be called Rum Bars in the tradition of Trailer Happiness in London. It is clear that the Rum Revolution illustrated in Pete Wells New York Times article is in full swing.
Dutch Kills owner Richard Boccato and award winning bartender Giuseppe Gonzalez should have Painkiller open by the Ides of March but this won't be another Trader Vic doppelganger. I'm expecting something out of Mean Streets. According to Eater, Boccato says:
"Since the team is planning to blend 1970s New York culture and 1940s tiki culture, this may just be the best-ever tiki bar. Even the address is cool."That cool address is the former East Side Company space on Essex and Grand. Expect freshly squeezed juice, an ice program par excellence, lots of falernum, private reserve rums,the classics made to perfection, as well as inventive cocktails and punches.
So until you can venture to PK NY to try the namesake, enjoy one of the British Virgin Island's most famous drinks:
4 parts fresh pineapple juice
1 part cream of coconut
1 part fresh orange juice
2 oz Rum (we recommend Smith & Cross Jamaican pot stilled rum)
touch of fresh grated nutmeg
Stir the juices and creme in bar glass, then add rum, stir again. Fill goblet with crushed ice, serve the mixture, and top off with dusting of fresh nutmeg.
49 Essex St
New York, NY
(Photos of PK NY courtesy of Giuseppe Gonzalez)