I’ve become obsessed with all things tiki lately. In fact, hubby and I basically threw ourselves into tiki culture over the past year or so. From tiki mugs to bamboo everything, from buying 50s & 60s exotica albums (Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman – the absolute soundtrack to the tiki lifestyle) and subscribing to Tiki Magazine — we’re hooked!
We even went to an all-tiki weekend getaway hosted by Phoenixville-based Retro Roadmap at the Carribean Motel in Wildwood back in May! It was a blast and left us with a thirst for more tiki in our lives.
Of the many things that make up “tiki culture” are the requisite “tiki bar” and renowned tiki cocktails. Surely, you’ve all heard of the popular “girly drinks” the Strawberry Daiquri and Pina Colada. Tiki cocktails can and do go beyond the traditional “tropical” flair and are often open to interpretation. But the signature components that commonly define a tiki drink are: rum, fruit, layers of flavor, and subtle and not so subtle splashes of color. Not to mention they are usually accompanied by whimsical ornaments — such as an umbrella — or served in huge bowls for multiple people to share.
Tiki culture is alive and well in locations such as California, Las Vegas, and Florida, but hasn’t been popular in Philadelphia in quite some time; at least since the 70s. Here’s a great article on Hidden Philly about Philly’s tiki past. I couldn’t possibly cover the tiki history the way Rachel did in this article – it’s a must read!
Anyways, there used to be extravagant Polynesian restaurants in the city and suburbs back in the day such as the Kona Kai in Bala Cynwyd and the Hawaiian Cottage in Cherry Hill, NJ. Both are long gone. In fact, all of them are long gone. The last Hawaiian-style restaurant to be in Philadelphia, Roy’s Restaurant, also closed many years ago. We seriously lack tiki and exotic-inspired places in this city/area. The closest you can get to a tiki restaurant is Lee’s Hawaiian Islander up in Lyndhurst, NJ – which is at least 1 hour, 30 minutes away from Philadelphia depending on traffic.
Last year, Tommy Up(degrove) of PYT decided that Philadelphia needed a Tiki bar so he opened the Yachtsman on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown. It opened to much fanfare, but it certainly didn’t kick start the tiki renaissance that Philadelphia deserves and, frankly, needs. The Yachtsman as a tiki bar has received mixed reviews from tiki aficionados who have visited, probably more so because of the people who frequent the establishment; likely young hipster-type who have no appreciation of tiki culture. Generally, however, the consensus among tiki lovers is that it it a valiant effort on the part of Up to bring tiki back to Philly and still worth visiting. Hubby and I haven’t yet been to the Yachtsman Bar, but it is on a very short list of places we need to visit soon.
UPDATE (1/20/2017): We’ve been to the Yachtsman a few times since this article was first published. It’s got great (potent) drinks and a fun decor. It still doesn’t quench our thirst for all-things tiki, but we do like it. We’ve met up with some tiki lovers from out of town and it met their approval as well so we hope it sticks around. It seems to be Tommy Up’s only venue in Philly right now.
UPDATE (5/4/2017): The Yachtsman is closed. Tommy Up is out of the bar business, at least for now.
This got me thinking; okay, so what if there are no authentic tiki bars/restaurants in Philadelphia? There are some very good bars that have tiki or tiki-inspired cocktails and I wanted to shed some light on them. So I did a little research. Mind you, I haven’t tried all of the drinks mentioned here, so consider this a cocktail wishlist that needs to be realized soon.
Here’s where you can try some tiki or tiki-inspired cocktails in Philadelphia
The Upstairs Bar *NEW*
The Upstairs Bar is located above The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. AKA The Franklin Bar. In 2017, they remodeled it and turned it into a full-fledged tiki bar. I’d say that it is now Philly’s only real tiki bar. They did a great job with the space and they did the right thing by hiring a real tiki bartender – Brian Maxwell – who specializes in tiki drinks.
Tiki (Midtown Village) *NEW*
Tiki, as the name suggests, proclaims to be a tiki bar in Philly. On the surface, it has some hallmarks of a tiki bar – classic tropical cocktails, Polynesian-style food, and Hawaiian decor. We haven’t been yet, but word from some tiki-loving friends of ours is that it’s a “nice try,” but misses the mark. They could do better. It just opened in summer of 2016 so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and check it out eventually.
While Crabby’s in the Piazza in Northern Liberties bills itself as a sports bar, there is a nautical element to the establishment thanks to its seafood-heavy menu. They also offer a lot of fun cocktails including many requisite tiki-friendly ones such as the Strawberry Daiquiri and Pina Colada. In fact, you can order them mixed together – they call it the “Miami Vice.” Additionally, Crabby’s has a drink called the “Happy Crab” in which the ingredients are a secret; what I did learn is that it consists of 4 liquors, 2 juices and some “other ingredients” and is best described as an alcoholic fruit punch Long Island. I have actually tried this last year when we attended a media event and it was VERY GOOD. Not quite tiki exactly, but I would go as far to say that rum is one of the liquors in it. Just a hunch, though. 🙂
If you’re looking for a traditional Pina Colada, it sounds like El Camino Real in Northern Liberties has what you’re looking for. It includes Don Q Cristal Rum, coconut creme, and pineapple juice. They have other tiki cocktail staples on the specialty cocktail menu. El Camino Real has been in the same spot, for at least 10 years. They know what they’re doing so I would trust going there for a tiki drink.
Cuba Libre is a Rum Bar & Cuban Restaurant in Old City. Naturally since they specialize in rum drinks, you can guarantee they’re good. One such drink that I can vouch for here, having tried it during the All You Can Eat Pig Roast a couple of months back, is the tiki-original Zombie. Their version of the Zombie consists of Don Q Cristal, Gold, Anejo and 151 Rums, falernum, pineapple juice, lime juice, lemon juice, and guarapo. It was potent and delicious! They also have another tiki drink the Scorpion on the tropical cocktail menu.
Such a sin that hubby & I haven’t been to Morgan’s Pier yet; a travesty really. I haven’t heard a bad thing about the place or the drinks. They have a straight-up traditional Dark & Stormy on the drinks menu that is, simply, Gosling’s Dark Rum + Ginger Beer. That can’t be bad. We’ll eventually get there to try it. Update: We visited Morgan’s Pier and LOVED it.
Copabanana has been a festive staple on South Street for 37 years! This restaurant with a dive bar feel serves up strong drinks with a smile. You’ve got to love the tropical decor, too. One tiki-style drink on their specialty drink menu is the Hurricane which was actually invented in New Orleans. But it’s got lots of rum in it and is very fruity and tropical so it belongs on a tiki drink menu.
Le Viet Restaurant is a Vietnamese restaurant with a bar in the Italian Market area. This normally wouldn’t scream “tiki” but tiki can also include Asian and Southeast Asian influences. They have a Mai Tai on the cocktail menu. The Le Viet Mai Tai is Amaretto, Pineapple Juice, Orange Juice, Light Rum, Dark Rum, Grenadine.
The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company, or Franklin Bar for short, is a popular speakeasy-style bar that is famous for complex cocktails and mixology. One of the drinks on the menu that is tiki-ish is “Mr. Palomar”; made out of Blanc Rhum Agricole, Gran Classico, Aperitivo Americano Rosa, Tiki Bitters, Pinch of Salt. Since it has “Tiki bitters” in it, it must be tiki right? Either way, it sounds amazing and I gotta try this drink and all the others soon!
Vietnam Restaurant in Chinatown unabashedly serves Polynesian cocktails. In fact, it’s probably your best bang for the buck for tiki cocktails in the city. Among the usual suspects, you can get a Flaming Volcano (For Two), Navy Grog, Suffering Bastard, Bachelor’s Downfall and, you guessed it, the “Tiki” – which is simply an “exotic mixture of Malibu Rum and Fruit Juice.” Having been a fan of Vietnam’s food for many years (probably some of the best Vietnamese you will get), this is a sure-bet as far as restaurant experiences with a side of Tiki you will find in Philadelphia. Their Vietnam Cafe in West Philly also serves up tropical cocktails.
Bonus Mai Tai Recipe
My good friends at Fine Wine & Good Spirits offered up a tiki-inspired recipe that I can share with you. It’s called the Dragon 88 Mai Tai. It consists of:
1 oz Admiral Nelson Coconut Rum
1 oz Blackheart Spiced Rum
½ oz Licor 43
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz orgeat syrup (a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose water or orange flower water)
1 each, pineapple slice and maraschino cherry
- Combine first five ingredients in a shaker filled with ice.
- Shake and strain into a Tiki mug filled with fresh ice.
- Garnish with pineapple slice and maraschino cherry.
Where do you go for tiki drinks in Philadelphia or do you prefer to make your own tiki cocktails at home? What’s your favorite drink? Share with us in the comments or tell us on Twitter.
Aloha from the Johnsons!
The Doyenne of Dining in Philadelphia and South Jersey.