Nightlife & Music

Bay Area’s 5 Best Tiki Bars

June 1, 2011 1:36 PM

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About mid-June the constant San Francisco summer fog starts to make me a little stir crazy. I dream of island breezes and the ability to wear a summer dress at night. Or at all. Since I can’t actually afford an island vacation, I visit SF’s Polynesian themed restaurants and bars, sip a rum concoction, eat some Asian-inspired spare ribs, squint really hard and pretend that I won’t need to put my jacket back on when I head outside. To be clear: tiki culture has as much connection to actual life in Polynesia as Full House does to San Francisco. But we all like our escapist fun every now and then. So join me at these places where you can take a little cocktail vacation to the South Pacific, or at least a kitschy version of it.

Trader Vic’s
4261 El Camino Real
Palo Alto, CA 94306
Trader Vic’s

9 Anchor Dr
Emeryville, CA 94608
Trader Vic’s Emeryville

This place invented Tiki. Or, at the very least, the mai tai, for which I am forever grateful. With two Bay Area locations, you can check out Trader Vic’s in Emeryville or Palo Alto. Either one will give you the impression of warm tropical breezes and island well being. Go with the original mai tai or try the rum barrel for your group. Order up the appetizer platter to soak up some of that rum and enjoy the island ambience of this classic Tiki place. The Emeryville location offers fantastic views of the bay, while the Palo Alto location next to Dinah’s Garden Hotel offers a hidden oasis feel. Both provide the illusion of escape to the islands.

575 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

For an upscale take on Hawaiian food, head to Roy’s, just south of Market. Sure they have the classic mai tai, but also have a whole host of slightly less sweet and more interesting cocktails. This is much more white tablecloths than crazy tiki gods guarding the doors, but its location makes Roy’s the perfect after work stop for a tiki cocktail. The shared canoe appetizer is fantastic, particularly the tuna poke, and the classic butterfish is delicious. Roy’s also perfected the chocolate lava cake, so if that’s not completely played out in your mind, save room.

Tonga Room
950 Mason St
San Francisco, CA 94108
Tonga Room

After a long urban planning nightmare where we thought this historic hotel tiki bar might close its doors, it looks like the Tonga Room is safe for the time being. So head here post haste! The best is to take advantage of their amazing happy hour on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. The appetizers and a cocktail are practically a steal. Stay a little past happy hour and find yourself grooving to the tunes of the floating band on the pool in the center of the restaurant and take in some of the best people watching in the city, as couples take over the dance floor, you witness awkward first dates, or tourists experiencing an odd little slice of our city.

Smuggler’s Cove
650 Gough Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Smuggler’s Cove

Elevating the tiki cocktail to an art form, eschewing the kitsch and bringing class to the Polynesian theme, Smuggler’s Cove is a welcome additon to the San Francisco tiki scene. The winner of copious awards, the smugglers at this cove mix a serious concoction. An inviting, multi-level space on a quiet part of Gough Street, the attention to detail, from the nautical theme to the specific glasses for each specific cocktail, let you know you are in the presence of something special. And if all these cloyingly sweet drinks aren’t your thing, try the bombo with nutmeg for a light clean rum taste.

Bamboo Hut
479 Broadway St
San Francisco, CA 94133
Bamboo Hut

On the opposite of the spectrum from the fancier tiki establishments, check out The Bamboo Hut. It’s sort of a tiki dive bar. With a giant glowing tiki fountain by the front door and thatching through most of your site lines, this is the place to recreate that island party you found yourself at that one time. Sometimes you just want to share a giant flaming drink (the volcano bowl) with your friends and act like ‘vacation you’. This is your place. The Hut hosts a happy hour on Wednesday-Friday with $2 off tiki drinks and $3 off featured beers, making this a great place to stop to get your night started.

Caveat: tiki drinks are potent. You’ll think, “This can’t be that strong!” Next thing you know it’s 2 a.m. and you’re hailing a cab with a faux flower lei. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Bonus tip:

Hawaii has fantastic plate lunches. It’s sort of their thing. Made up of your choice of meat on a plate with rice and macaroni salad, it’s the Hawaiian way. Keep the tiki-theme going during the day and head out to the Mission to Hawaiian Drive Inn #28 and grab yourself an authentic plate lunch.

-Lisa Tennenbaum

View Comments
  • drewfus

    are you kidding me?? this list is awful.

    Where is ‘Lost Island” in Alameda?????

    The Tonga Room ? All they care about there is taking your $$$.

    • Greg Greunke

      I totally agree. It’s really a list of San Francisco Tiki bars and I wouldn’t count Trader Vic’s or the Tonga Room as Tiki bars. More like island themed restaurants.

      5 stars for Lost Island and don’t forget the Conga Lounge in Rock Ridge.

      • BobB

        Lost Island..end of story.

  • Stephanie

    Agreed. This list is lame. If you’re really looking for some tiki/polynesian locations look at, instead of this article.

    P.S. it’s Forbidden Island, not Lost Island.

    • Annette

      Stephanie, thank you for the correction on Forbidden Island! I was yelling it to the screen and am glad that someone caught it before I commented :).

  • Amy Kern

    Travesty! Forbidden Island is hands down THE BEST tiki bar in the Bay Area. Smuggler’s Cove fails to deliver on the tiki. At best it might be able to pass itself off as a pirate-themed bar, but not much of one. My visit there was very disappointing.

  • Wanda

    Trader Vic’s drinks are not always on point, Smugglers Cove is not tiki besides the fact that they serve rum – their drinks are never consistent in any way, Forbidden Island is the best tiki joint in Northern California hands down.

  • Tanuki

    I’ll agree with Trader Vic’s (they have bars connected to the the dining areas), the Tonga Room (for its novel and historical value), and Smuggler’s Cove (excellent drinks and cool atmosphere… yes, pirates and tikis kind of go hand-in-hand). Roy’s doesn’t seem to fit in this category at all, and on my first visit to the Bamboo Hut the drinks were so bad I had no desire to return. Missing from this list are 3 major East Bay tiki bars: Kona Club in Oakland, Conga Lounge in Rockridge, and, of course, Forbidden Island in Alameda (which is probably the best tiki bar in the entire Bay Area). OK, so that’s more than 5 tiki bars. Also, the author describes tiki drinks as “cloyingly sweet”. A good tiki drink has depth of flavor, and a balance of sweet and sour. A “cloyingly sweet” tiki drink is not a good tiki drink.

  • Patrick

    This list totally sucks. No Forbidden Island? FAIL!

  • Jim

    Disappointed! Forbidden Island and Smugglers Cover should be at the top of the list. The other East Bay spots should finish out the list.

  • Jesse Hammer

    I’d like to throw The Kona Club on Piedmont and Grand in Oakland into the ring as well. Great place.

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