Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a California tiki bar that’s cracked the list of best cocktail bars in the country.
NAME: Smuggler’s Cove
LOCATION: Fillmore District, San Francisco
ON THE JUKEBOX: Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Mai Tai: rum, line juice, house-made orgeat, orange Curaçao and a special blend of sugars designed just for this drink
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Smuggler’s Rum Barrel: rum, lime juice, pineapple juice and Rum Barrel Mix—a recipe so secret that the bartenders don’t even know what’s in it
WHY WE LOVE IT: Tiki bars are not a retro fad. They are a valid movement in America’s pop art history, says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove tiki bar in San Francisco. To this tiki historian and rum aficionado, the original tiki bar movement of the 1950s spoke to something very specific in the American psyche, and its modern resurgence does too.
“We still want that escape,” Cate says. “We just want to go somewhere where we can loosen our ties, have a big frosty rum drink and listen to the sounds of running water and macaws. We all have different versions of paradise, but the tropical island with its gentle trade winds and flickering tiki torches at dusk still has a powerful pull over Americans.”
In 2009 when Cate opened Smuggler’s Cove, new-wave tiki bars were just catching on in the U.S. Most of the bars that were open were more interested in the décor than the drinks. But Cate had a grander vision: to combine the Polynesian pop décor with a craft cocktail ethos.
“The idea with Smuggler’s Cove was let’s have a immersive atmosphere, let’s make it an escapist, exciting environment, but let’s also tell the broader story of rum,” he says. The bar has an impressive, 600-bottle rum inventory—the largest selection in America. “We have dozens of one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable bottles,” Cate says. His rarest, most fascinating bottles date back to the 1800s. His most expensive pour is the Appleton Estate 50 Year, which goes for $360 an ounce.
The three-story bar doesn’t have any windows (“I don’t want the outside world in,” Cate says) and contains a waterfall and a pond, which, strangely enough, was already in the space when Cate bought it. The décor skews toward the nautical to honor rum’s origins in the Caribbean and San Francisco’s maritime history. There are anchors, old rum barrels, wooden crates and rigging stuffed in every corner and even hanging from the ceiling. The bar also contains tiki memorabilia that Cate has been collecting for the past 20 years.
“Everything has a patina. It was either hand-carved for us or handed down from other tiki bars,” Cate says. “Even if you walk into the space and none of it makes sense, you are still going to feel like this stuff is very real because it all is. The very first tiki bar I went into completely baffled me. I didn’t know what it meant, I didn’t get it at all. But it enchanted me. I just knew that I loved it whatever it was.”
Tiki bars boomed in the 1950s, when there was an entire shared cultural fascination with Polynesian pop culture. It stemmed from many events including World War II vets returning to the U.S. with memories of the South Pacific, Hawaiian statehood and trendy backyard luaus. This fascination was so pervasive throughout American society that apartment complexes and hotels were built to look like Polynesian temples.
But within a decade, tiki bars’ popularity slumped. “By the end of the 1960s, America was less naïve as a country,” Cate says. “Vietnam had a lot to do with that. At a time where there was so much turmoil and social unrest, going into these artificially themed environments seemed frivolous.” There was also a generational shift. Tiki bars were the hangouts of the Greatest Generation, so their kids, Baby Boomers, thought of them as being old-fashioned.
In the 1970s tastemakers began to write tiki bars off as being tacky or kitschy. “But the people who created these places, who sourced these South Pacific building materials, who did these carvings, who sculpted these ceramic mugs, who wrote these beautiful exotica music—they didn’t think it was kitschy. They thought it was something special,” Cate says.
In Smuggler’s Cove early years, tiki drinks were just being re-discovered across America. “Craft bartenders at high-end cocktail bars were finding, the same thing we already found and knew, that it doesn’t matter what kind of bar you’re at, if you put a tiki mug with an elaborate garnish in front of a guest, they tend to smile,” he says. “People love it. And bartenders recognize that exotic cocktails, when made correctly, were kindred spirits to what they were doing.”
Cate believes tiki is a category of drink that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the other historic cocktail categories such as juleps and fizzes. They aren’t the syrupy, bright pink bombs that people often think of. “When you go back and read the old recipes, you’re like wait, this isn’t synthetic at all. This is real almond syrup, fresh citrus juices and really good quality rum,” he says. “One of the great things about exotic cocktails is that they’re layered and interesting, but they’re almost always very approachable and tasty. Everything is designed to please, not attack, your palate.”
Smuggler’s Cove’s menu, which was overhauled just two weeks ago, contains 105 drinks. The long and nerdy menu is organized into four sections: Rum Through The Ages (such as colonial tavern drinks, royal navy drinks and prohibition-era Cuban drinks), Traditional Drinks of the Caribbean (broken down by island), Exotic Cocktails From Legendary Tiki Bars (the greatest hits from the past century), and Smuggler’s Cove Originals (such as modern, amaro-forward rum drinks and beer-tails).
The bar has its own loyalty program for those who want to try all of the drinks. Members get a cocktail punchcard that their bartender will punch every time they try a new drink. Complete your card and you get free merchandise such as a merit badge and etched glassware, and you become a member of the Mahalo Club, which gets you a 5 percent discount on your bar tab…forever.
Members of the bar’s prestigious Rumbustion Society drink their way through the rum collection. This rum club has quarterly meetings where they taste new rum samples, discuss the industry and get to meet distillers. The more 2-ounce pours you try, the higher you advance in the society and the more rewards you earn such as exclusive distillery tours. The highest level, known as the Black Tassel Brigade, requires you sample 500 different rums. Only seven people have reached this level.
With so many ways to stay involved in Smuggler’s Cove, Cate is confident that people will not tire of the bar or burn out on tiki culture. “Executing the atmosphere and drinks well is not easy. It’s expensive and time consuming and labor-intensive. But we still have to offer people a really authentic experience to keep it special,” he says. “And I don’t think [tiki bars are] ever going to reach this zenith as it did in the 1950s and ’60s. It was very much a shared kind of fever dream in America. And in 2016 it’s not a shared fever dream. There are so many distractions, so many other things to do.”
That being said, Cate hopes that every city has a great tiki bar in the future. To him, tiki bars should be thought of like sports bars: an entertainment option that’s just part of the fabric of a city. “Maybe you don’t want it every day, but there’s lots of times when you just want to grab a couple of friends and go drink some scorpion bowls,” he says. “Or I certainly hope so. I really don’t have a fall back position at this point.”
Earlier this month Cate and his wife, Rebecca, released Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, which includes recipes from the bar and history about the Polynesian pop movement. Smuggler’s Cove will host a book launch party on Tuesday, June 21.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep