Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

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Truxton Inn decided to go tiki for the summer and drew up a menu of sugary hits like the Jungle Bird, Mai Tai, and Hawaiian Sunset. The neighborhood bar also rolled out plays on tiki classics like the Sunrise Over Barcelona with gin, passionfruit, lemon, coconut cream, and Angostura bitters. 

But the neighborhood rebelled. They wanted to sip the original cocktails Truxton Inn introduced when it opened just three months ago, says head bartender Brian Nixon. The bar now serves both menus. But does the fact that Bloomingdale imbibers staged a mini, mixed-drink mutiny suggest there’s too much tiki in this town? And what’s behind the flaming hot trend? 

Truxton Inn isn’t the only bar to shed its normal sensibility for an island vibe. Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, Virginia, has transformed its porch into Polynesia through Aug. 17, making for an odd juxtaposition with its buttoned up cuisine like dry-aged duck breast with confit leg and beluga lentil cassoulet.

Pepita Cantina in Arlington, Virginia, has also been launching tiki pop-ups, and the back corner of the roof deck at Jack Rose Dining Saloon has once again been converted into a tiki bar for the warmer months. Then there’s Hogo Bar, a bygone D.C. tiki bar from Tom Brown that’s now popping up inside The Passenger—possibly for good. 

Further proof that the tiki scale has tipped: Eight bars are collaborating for a “Tiki Trail” throughout August. Fans of drinks that come in pineapples—and who are apparently immune to the kind of hangover that makes you feel like you’re hugging a jackhammer—have the month to make their trail stops, earning stamps along the way for polishing off drinks. Finishers will be invited to a Sept. 3 luau. 

Participating bars include Hogo Bar, Archipelago, Cotton & Reed, McClellan’s Retreat, Tuxton Inn, Quarter & Glory, Service Bar DC, and The Good Silver. May the odds be liver in your favor.

Nixon’s reasons for embracing tiki at Truxton Inn this summer and at McClellan’s Retreat in August are pure. “I love tiki,” he says. “That’s the number one reason.” He always yearns to pour the intricate drinks, but he chooses to do so only during the summer months when crowds are thinner because of the extra time and resources required to serve labor-intensive cocktails with fresh-squeezed juices, house-made orgeat, and garnishes worth tucking behind your ear.

But longtime bartender-turned-bar-owner Trevor Frye renounces the short-term tiki trend. “Throwing a tiki menu out because it’s hot outside is kind of a cop-out,” he says. He believes that temporary tiki bars are whipping up sweet rum drinks, pinning up a few masks, and scoring some cool glassware without taking the time to understand tiki’s long history, its culture, and its ingredients. “It drives me bonkers just because I’ve been to such great tiki bars.”

Two bars that originated in California are credited for igniting the tiki movement in America. Don the Beachcomber debuted in 1933, and Trader Vic’s opened in the same decade. Many venerable tiki bars have opened in the 80 years that followed, including Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash and Lost Lake, San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, New Orleans’ Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, and Portland’s Hale Pele

These permanent tiki bars will always have an advantage over temporary residencies. Take D.C.’s own U Street NW tiki bar, Archipelago, which could plausibly compete with bars of national renown. Before it opened, the owners immersed themselves in a large collection of first-edition books about tiki bars and recipes. “And we were able to cobble together what money we had to take trips and talk with people in Chicago,” says co-owner Ben Wiley. Even then, he says it took a month to feel comfortable making the drinks.

Tiki cocktails are markedly different from classic cocktails, says Wiley. While most cocktails contain between 2.5 and 3 ounces of alcohol, tiki drinks pack higher potencies at closer to 4.5 or 5 ounces. “You have to make sure they’re good to the last drop,” he says. “That’s why they’re stronger usually. People are sipping them and enjoying them for longer than say a Negroni.”

But Wiley isn’t exercised by bars that appropriate his tropic thunder for a season, saying there’s plenty of room in the sandbox. In fact, he hopes Washingtonians will encounter tiki drinks on a temporary menu and come to Archipelago for a more complete experience. “They’ll do a sneak peek,” he says. “We’re the full movie. It’s not a theme, it’s a lifestyle for us.”

Frye thinks there are several reasons bars are jumping on the Blood & Sand bandwagon. The first is that the lead spirit in tiki drinks is typically rum, which yields higher profit margins. “I can run a drink with Bacardi, something that costs $14-$17 a liter wholesale, and charge $14 for a drink,” he explains. “And it’s really easy to do shitty tiki cocktails that people will buy.” 

Not only is rum more affordable than, say, Scotch, but the spirit is having a moment. After being written off for decades because coconut rums like Malibu tarnished its name, rum is back as a pet spirit. Much like mezcal last year, mixologists are eager to talk about the alcohol’s nuances. 

Second, bars are thirsty to remain on the radar. “There’s insane pressure on bars to stay relevant, to stay fresh in the media,” Frye says. “If you put out a press release that says we’re doing a tiki menu, it gets them in the cycle again.” But flash menus lead to rush jobs, and he argues that tiki culture is something to be studied and embraced. “It shouldn’t just be [done] on a whim, like we’re going to throw something out because we got a request for PR.” 

Finally, tiki drinks have the wow factor Instagrammers are looking for. “Tiki has this exorbitant nature to it,” Frye says. “It’s over the top. Everyone loves that banana dolphin with a cherry in its mouth.” Crazy garnishes are free marketing for bars, which is part of why tiki is so tempting. But the danger of it is that going off message starts to chip away at a bar’s brand.

It’s OK if people aren’t coming to his bar Five to One on National Piña Colada Day, he says, because he’s focused on new cocktail menus based on the acts playing at the nearby 9:30 Club. “We don’t have to be on this quest to get every person in every single night.” 

And he urges other bar owners to shed the obsession with instant gratification and short-term strategizing in favor of cultivating loyal regulars. “Maybe I’ll eat my words at some point, but I believe in the concepts that I put out,” he says. “I’m gonna stick to my guns.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.