Where to find Tiki 2.0 in San Diego
Of course, that’s not to say San Diego hasn’t turned up the volume on its own Tiki re-write, evidenced by the near-simultaneous opening of two Tiki speakeasies this past fall. The first, False Idol in Little Italy, opened in a small, cavernous space behind the newly remodeled Craft & Commerce. Guests walk through an actual refrigerator and say hi to Fred the jarred (and fake) skull before entering the bar room, which is covered in carved wood panels and features a ceiling jam-packed with large, colorful glass balls. On one side of the menu, tropical enthusiasts will delight in the rehashing of old Tiki cocktails that aren’t often seen, like the Port au Prince, which has Aged Haitian rum, falernum, fresh lime, pineapple juice, and spiced bitters. On the other side, False Idol offers up modern twists devised by its own in-house team, like the Port of Spain: a present-day incarnation of the Port au Prince made with aged Trinidadian rum, brandy, Licor 43, Amaro di Angostura, pineapple, and lime.
Fifteen minutes to the north is The Grass Skirt, a Pacific Beach spot that opened 2016 from the SDCM Family. The front is a take-out poke shop called Good Time Poke, through which guests must walk to access the faux-refrigerator door leading to The Grass Skirt’s main dining room, complete with a wonderland of giant Tiki men, tropical murals, neon lights, bamboo, and fibre-optics.
SDCM’s beverage director, Steven Tuttle, thinks Tiki is exploding for simple reasons. “A lot of bartenders on the East Coast in the early 2000s brought back classic cocktails that faded out since prohibition. They got better ingredients, thought about balanced drinks and revived old recipes -- many of which they retooled.” He explains that cities like New York and Chicago have more runway to try new concepts, as they have larger populations who are always open to the next big thing. “It was only logical for Tiki to be the next thing to come through. It’s also more fun -- the cocktail movement can be snotty and serious. We’re just trying to have fun with good product: rare rums, artisanal syrups, fresh juices. A favorite drink is the Lava and Ice, which mixes serrano tequila, Jamaica Navy-strength rum, lime, pineapple, coconut, and pomegranate. It’s garnished with a lime, filled with strong rum, which is then lit on fire to the customer’s delight.
Tuttle insists that rum is the next big spirit. He thinks it got the short end of the stick back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when it was used as a party drink for bad cocktails. It’s also made from sugar, which means it requires finesse and creativity to make a balanced drink. “Rum is one of those things that isn’t regulated: a blessing and a curse. So as long as you’re producing something that’s a byproduct of sugarcane, you can call it rum. That leaves the door wide open for a whole host of cool stuff.” He relishes in creating drinks with several types of esoteric rums nobody has ever heard of -- something the team at False Idol takes pride in, as well. False Idol even hosts a rum enthusiast club intended to showcase its collection of over 200 rare rums with like-minded individuals.
“The whole idea of tiki is ‘eternal sunset.’ It could be gloomy or rainy, but you can come to the Grass Skirt and it’ll be eternal sunset in here,” says SDCM partner Matt Spencer. Indeed, while Tiki culture has ebbed and flowed nationwide, its one-time death elsewhere in the country has always been more of a permanent vacation in San Diego -- its own eternal sunset, of sorts. Tuttle sums it up best: “We live at the beach and in a beautiful place; why wouldn’t we have tropical drinks?”