Tiki Bars of San Francisco: Paradises and Deep Dives
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The first time I went to a Tiki Bar, I didn’t expect to love it, but I did. I loved it A LOT. I tend to like experiences and things that aren’t about taking yourself seriously, that are just about having a good time: this is Tiki Bars in a nutshell. Tiki Bars combine elements of old school kitsch, immersive escapism, and unapologetic tackiness in a way that I just find really mood-lifting (and until people start opening ghost bars in San Francisco, they’re your best bet for an immersive alcoholic experience).
My understanding on the history and context of Tiki Bars and the modern Tiki revival is pretty superficial, honestly. You can find much better resources on the history and context of Tiki Bars and polynesian pop elsewhere (try Critiki), but if you just want to find a place in San Francisco where the decor is made of palm fronds and the drinks are stiff and fruity, then here are some of the city’s best. (Also, I haven’t gotten out to any East Bay Tiki Bars yet, but there are supposed to be some good ones so let me know if you have suggestions.)
The popularity of Smuggler’s Cove is totally deserved. If you want to avoid shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, the trick seems to be coming on a drizzly weeknight that also doesn’t fall on someone’s birthday (good luck coordinating that one). From the ceiling hidden by glass floats and puffer fish to the water fall downstairs, there’s not an inch of this place that doesn’t feature some detail to distract the eye. Their cocktail menu is a tome, and you’d think with so many options there’s bound to be a dud somewhere in there, but every cocktail I’ve had here has been absolutely delicious.
650 Gough St., San Francisco, CA [Civic Center]
Go into this bar and keep going. The back is where Pagan Idol gets really fun, with a day glow volcano water fountain, lots of tikis, and exotica jams playing over the speakers. There’s also an openness to this bar that I like a lot, and generally the whole place and all the people in it just seem to exude a having-a-good-time vibe. The drinks are stiff (but not unpleasantly so) and full of the good ice. If you need a sweet snack the Maybe Grog is garnished with rock candy and the Dawn Patrol is garnished with a toasted marshmallow.
375 Bush St., San Francisco, CA [Financial District]
This is a laid back neighborhood bar. Tiki Haven has TVs if you want to watch some sportsball and no one will look at you funny if you order a beer. The whole place has a relaxed, home-away-from-home vibe that just also happens to feature mugs shaped like Easter Island heads and a beachy canopy of string lights. Last time I was there, guys in the corner were chowing down on some takeout they’d brought in, no problem. The drinks here a bit hit and miss, the Pina Colada tastes a bit like spiked shampoo, but the Kokomo was a really good balance Southern Comfort, coconut rum, lime, mango, and grenadine, that I highly recommend.
1334 Noriega St., San Francisco [Sunset]
Pacific Cocktail Haven
If your friends roll their eyes at you when you say you want to go to a Tiki Bar, you should take them to PCH. At a glance this place doesn’t look different from any other downtown cocktail lounge, and the tiki mugs are hidden like Easter eggs amongst the rest of the barware. You could argue that PCH isn’t even a Tiki Bar at all and win that argument very easily. (But what’s the point when we’re all going to die someday?) First off: this place smells divine — and that’s something I never thought I would say about a bar. Secondly, the cocktails are excellent. Their menu highlights sophisticated ingredients in unexpected ways and brings new twists to old classics. It is expensive, but it feels justified. Unlike other bars where an expensive cocktail feels like you’re paying a surcharge for something intangible, at PCH you pay for the drinks themselves : delicious, complicated, and creative.
580 Sutter St., San Francisco [Union Square]
Like any good dive, Trad’r Sam opens bright and early, but stays dark all day. The menu is a long list of vaguely tropical sounding drinks with poetic descriptions that tell you absolutely nothing about what you’re ordering. I’m not convinced that ordering a drink here isn’t a mystic experience between you and the bartender, wherein they assess your karma then give you the drink you actually deserve. (It’s rum and pineapple juice, isn’t it? You monster…) The drinks are just okay, but the ice cream options and very cheap prices make up for it. I’ve only been here once. It was a Saturday afternoon and the bar crowd was 75% there to celebrate some chick’s birthday and 25% old timers about to get in a fight about “Governor Moonbeam”. With the right crew, I’d definitely go back.
6150 Geary Blvd., San Francisco [Richmond]
The Tonga Room is a holdover from the golden age of Tiki Bars, and if you want over-the-top Tiki set dressing, then this is your place. The bar area is designed to look like full size sailing ship, the dining areas have umbrellas over the tables on one side and a giant thatched roof on the other. In the center of the place there’s a damn swimming pool with semi regular rain storms and a floating hut for live music. It’s all pretty cool. Still, it is also on the expensive side, and there’s a kind of a ruthless efficiency when it comes to the service that makes you want to sit up straight and not really settle in. The food isn’t bad and the portions are pretty generous, but at those prices you want it to be much better. The drinks are exactly what you might expect. I want to love this place or hate it outright, but I can’t do either. It is worth a visit, but it’s not a place I would visit frequently.
950 Mason St., San Francisco [Chinatown]