Top Tiki Bars in the East Bay
These four watering holes provide the perfect rum-soaked antidote to winter’s chill.
In addition to creating the original mai tai, Trader Vic invented more than 200 signature drinks.
Photo by Wayde Carrol
Between the frantic holiday shopping, cold temperature, and frazzled race to year’s end, an island idyll sounds pretty, well, idyllic right now. In case you can’t escape for a quick jaunt to Tahiti or Hawaii, consider slipping into one of the East Bay’s top tiki hangouts for a fruity drink, Polynesian decor, and a laid-back feel.
Tiki historians credit Vic “Trader” Bergeron with inventing the original mai tai cocktail in 1944 in Oakland, and his eponymous restaurant overlooking the San Francisco Bay is the best place to sip the rum-based concoction under the watchful eye of carved tiki totems. 9 Anchor Dr., Emeryville, (510) 653-3400, tradervicsemeryville.com.
Vibe: More refined than the Jimmy Buffet set, the crowd at this Emeryville institution works a smart-casual look that borders on formal, and the backdrop feels like Polynesian fine dining rather than backyard barbecue.
Drink: Ride the Mai Tai Wave, which consists of three tropical tweaks on the classic drink served on a surfboard. If you’re smitten with the set, you can take it home for $75.
Bonus: Most beverages come in unique, covetable glassware and taste especially good when paired with the lounge’s view of the sun setting over the bay.
This low-lit Uptown Oakland hideaway draws a slightly younger crowd with its kitschy mugs and high-octane cocktail bowls served by hip (but unpretentious) bartenders. 347 14th St., Oakland, (510) 823-2332, thekon-tikioakland.com.
Vibe: The restaurant bustles most nights, but try and score a seat under the thatched roof of the bar so you can watch Hawaiian shirt–clad bartenders expertly navigate the jars of garnishes and bottles of mixed spirits while classic rock and Hawaiian tunes float above the noise of the crowd.
Drink: Guests go nuts for the frothy, coconut-flavored Uma Uma, but you’ll risk actually losing your mind if you order The Kon-Tiki Zombie (it has a recommended two drink limit), which packs a powerful punch in its rum-laden secret recipe.
Bonus: Happy hour will score you a mai tai, piña colada, or daiquiri for $4 off the normal drink price. If you’re feeling flush and altruistic, order the Rum and Honey: Its proceeds benefit charitable efforts in Haiti.
Launched in 2006 under the guidance of master mixologist Martin Cate, this Alameda escape may be the closest the East Bay gets to a true island bar. Fresh-squeezed juices, house-made ingredients, and quirky garnishes give it a distinctive feel. 1304 Lincoln Ave., Alameda, (510) 749-0332, forbiddenislandalameda.com.
Vibe: Expect a laid-back hang featuring live rockabilly music; wicker chairs; an inviting back patio; and a ceiling littered with scribbled-on dollar bills, glass puffer fish lights, and other flotsam and jetsam.
Drink: The cocktail menu is helpfully split between tiki classics, modern riffs, large-scale bowls, and other mainstays, but our vote is for the Tropical Itch—a passion fruit, rum, and bourbon elixir that comes with a back scratcher.
Bonus: Join the Kill Devil Club by sipping your way through all of Forbidden Island’s 100-plus rums, and you’ll earn a lifetime discount and your name on a commemorative plaque hanging behind the bar.
The Kona Club
Slinging its signature “chi-chis” for 13 years and self-proclaimed as “Oakland’s little slice of paradise,” this nondescript bar on Piedmont Avenue welcomes with its friendly staff, potent Scorpion bowls, and relaxed atmosphere. 4401 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 654-7100, konaclub.net.
Vibe: Bamboo-walled and strung with hanging blowfish lights, The Kona Club manages to seamlessly blend tiki decor with a rock ’n’ roll energy amplified by a killer music selection on the sound system.
Drink: As the bar’s retro-style T-shirts say, “Real men drink chi-chis”—a reference to the bar’s most popular drink: a deceptively boozy, blended combination of vodka, macadamia nut liqueur, coconut cream, and pineapple juice.
Bonus: No, that’s not the rum playing tricks on you: There really is a topless hula girl whose animatronic hips sway from side to side, and the volcano behind the bar periodically erupts with smoke, covering the bar in a soft glow.