Bay Area Tiki Lovers Have a New Tropical Refuge
By Will “The Thrill” Viharo
Once ubiquitous in cities and small towns across the nation, the tiki bar has recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, a by-product of the whole Tiki Culture renaissance of the ’90s, spearheaded by enterprising, savvy swingers, like Tiki News founder Otto Von Stroheim and Sven Kirsten, author of The Book of Tiki. While the “lounge revival” has mostly subsided from mainstream interest, the Tiki Boom is still in full hula-sway, most recently evidenced by the opening of FORBIDDEN ISLAND on the (mainly landfill) island community of Alameda, California, just across the harbor from Oakland in the San Francisco Bay. Without actually traveling back in time to Hawaii circa 1962, this brand new lounge is as close as one can get to the authentic, postwar tiki bar experience.
Proprietor Martin Cate and his business partners, Michael and Mano Thanos, know exactly what they’re doing, since they have the exotic experience to back up their boldly uncompromising enterprise, borne of a mutually pure vision. Martin has been a bartender for Trader Vic’s and brings his mixologist magic to the drink menu. Michael and Mano Thanos have already opened one successful tiki bar in the East Bay, the Conga Lounge in the birthplace of the Mai Tai, Oakland.
(Yes, Oakland is the home of the Mai Tai–the first Trader Vic’s opened in the early ’30s as Hinky Dink’s on San Pablo Ave., right across the street from another tiki lounge, Zombie Village.) Boasting the flagship Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, the recently opened Kona Club (also in Oakland), Tiki Tom’s in Walnut Creek, and now Forbidden Island in my home of Alameda, the East Bay has reclaimed its throne as the mainland hotbed of Tikimania.
A Tiki-Themed Dreamland
Forbidden Island was conceived to be the ultimate tiki bar experience, and it succeeds on all fronts, including the faux-shipwreck decor, the eclectic and deliciously intoxicating drink menu, and the outstanding jukebox, which includes an astounding array of retro sounds, both vintage and contemporary.
With a handful of quarters you can listen to Henry Mancini, Herb Alpert, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter, Elvis, Sinatra, Dino, Bobby Darin, Tom Jones and Patsy Cline, all mixed in with modern bands like the Moon-Rays, the Metrolites, Pollo del Mar, Project Pimento and the Mai Kai Gents, plus killer compilations of Motown, Soul, Surf, Crime Jazz, Latin Jazz, Classic Country, Rockabilly, ’50s R&B, and more. Nothing makes a specific ambience work more than music, and Forbidden Island is the only tiki bar–heck, the only bar, period, that I know of–that offers the perfect musical accompaniment to your imbibing pleasure.
Intoxicating Cocktails to Suit Every Taste
Now, the drinks. Next to music, the actual cocktails are the key ingredient to any successful bar, perhaps most especially a tiki bar, which requires an artful skill from the bartenders (and well-rewarded patience from the patrons.) All of FI’s drinks are made with fresh juices and the best of spirits (and in the best of spirits), increasing your healthy buzz but reducing your hangover at the same time. Some favorites include:
The Sidewinder’s Fang ($8) – a sweetly sour blend of lime, orange, passion fruit and dark rum, originated at the defunct Lanai in San Mateo, CA.
The Cornonado Luau Special ($9) – another “buried treasure” unearthed for our enjoyment, this mix of lemon, lime, orange and choice rums hails from the long lost Luau Room of San Diego’s fabled Hotel Del Coronado.
The Hawaii Kai Treasure ($8) – yet another rescued recipe, this time from New York’s historic Hawaii Kai, a creamy creation mixing lime, grapefruit and a touch of honey.
The Royal Hawaiian ($6) – My wife Monica the Tiki Goddess’s top choice, named after our favorite hotel in the world, the Pink Palace on Waikiki Beach, a smooth, cool martini made of pineapple and gin.
Along with these specials are the standbys, like the Mai Tai (available in two recipes, the “classic” which is more lime-based, and my preference, the pineapple-infused Island Mai Tai with the rum float); the Zombie; three different Grogs (Captain’s, Navy and Pirate); a variety of Daiquiris (the Mango is the best); the Hurricane; and the Painkiller, which speaks for itself. All in all there are 38 recipes to choose from, with prices generally in the $6-$10 range.Tiki Central, including the ever-popular Monkeypod, which combines tamarind, coconut and lime juice with a strong dose of spirits for a tangy punch of potency. Another one, Neptune’s Garden, is a tribute to Alameda history: once known as “the Coney Island of the West,” and the home of the snowcone, Alameda’s Neptune Beach was a legendary destination, a playground by the Bay that was converted into a military base during WWII, never to regain its original glory. Now it’s Crab Cove, a popular scenic spot, sans the rides, swimming pools and other amusement amenities, but a few sips from this blue baby and you’re swimming in nostalgia, with maybe a whirl on the old roller coaster, too…
Groups of four can dive into The Mystery Bowl ($22) which takes The Scorpion Bowl ($22) a step further–you’re not sure what you’re ordering, it’s the bartender’s surprise. But, trust me, you won’t be disappointed. Forbidden Island also offers $5 drink specials during Happy Hour, Tuesday through Thursday from 5-7PM. On weekends you may have to wait in line, since it’s already a hit hula-hipster hangout. It’s worth it.
Tasty Tropical Treats, Too
Forbidden Island also offers some snacks to feed your thirst. I’ve tried ’em all and they’re all quite tasty (I’m partial to the Wings, but the Rangoon is not far behind, great fries, too). Here’s the list, you can’t go wrong with any selection:
Coconut Shrimp ($6)
Buffalo Hot Wings ($5)
Vegetable Spring Roll ($5)
Crab Rangoon ($5)
Fish and Chips ($6)
Onion Rings ($4)
Sweet Potato Fries ($4)
French Fries ($3)
An Exotic Landscape to Thrill the Senses
The last essential component: the decor. Martin, Mike and Mano have it down to a scientific art form. Visitors are welcomed by an abundance of tropical eye candy as soon as they walk in the door. But it isn’t kitschy. It’s simply and purely atmospheric, designed by the owners and implemented by ace world class tiki bar builder Bamboo Ben, yet another Tiki Centralite. There are tiki statues, tiki mugs and bamboo artifacts everywhere, but they’re so integral to the environment they’re practically understated.
Although FI is a “theme bar,” you feel like you’re in a well-preserved time capsule, as opposed to a trendy new meat market cashing in on the latest craze. The big tiki in the corner with the cascading pool is subtlety soothing, and the framed album covers (including, of course, Martin Denny’s Forbidden Island) and movie posters (including, naturally, the ’50s adventure flick Forbidden Island) add to the ambience without distracting from your drink. Like the Conga Lounge, the television behind the bar only shows (soundless) clips from classic TV shows and movies featuring seductive scenes of Hawaii, tiki or other Polynesian Pop. Along with the jukebox, which provides the aural stimulation, this visual touch succeeds in creating the self-contained illusion of actually existing in a bygone era, a parallel universe where the classic tiki bar, and lounge culture, never died. It lives on thanks to Mike, Mano and Martin. Mahalo, mateys.
1304 Lincoln Ave.
Alameda, CA 94501
Happy Hour Tues-Thurs 5-7PM
Capacity: 60 (bar, patio and “tiki hut” booth seating)
Will “the Thrill” is the Mayor of the B-movie burg “Thrillville.” You can find him swingin’ on a hammock at Thrillville.net.