Beach bars are a dime a dozen here in Tampa Bay. Tiki bars? Totally different story.
There is a difference, too. Here in Florida, beach bars are all about flip-flops, mojitos and Margaritaville. But a classic tiki bar is different. The decor should be more Polynesian in feel, with torches and tikis and elaborate fruity cocktails like the Mai Tai, Zombie or Planter's Punch. The vibe should be darker, kitschier, more Swingin' '60s.
The Tampa Bay area used to have several such bars: Tiki Gadens, Trader Frank's, the old Hawaiian Village. Now, though, you're more likely to find a beach bar masquerading as a tiki bar, often with the word "tiki" right in the title.
For example, Tampa's Tahitian Inn has two bars — one poolside, The Torch, and another inside, Tiki Joe's (formerly Kon Tiki). There's plenty of Polynesian imagery, and the "locals welcome" sign is nice to see at a hotel (especially one where Michael "Lindsay's dad" Lohan was once arrested). But when I asked for a Mai Tai at the Torch, the bartender said he rarely made them — and then proceeded to serve it in a Styrofoam cup. Not cool, braddah.
Down at Hula Bay Club, the Hawaiian theme is thick on the food menu (Hawaiian-bread sandwiches and grilled-pineapple burgers? Done and done), but not so much with the drinks. There's no real cocktail list, and when I asked for a Zombie — a fairly standard tiki drink — the bartender politely demurred. But they do make a mighty delicious Planter's Punch, and you can't beat the shaded, secluded dockside setting of Duke's Retired Surfers Island Bar.
Located at the end of John's Pass, Madeira Beach's Bamboo Beach Bar has been a favorite of tourists and locals since 1947. Here you'll find many prominent tiki sculptures, as well as a delightful touch behind the bar — you can order your drink in one of six ceramic tiki mugs, yours to keep for $12. Get something frozen; you won't regret it.
All of these places are good ... but again, they feel more like classic Key West beach bars than South Pacific tiki bars. So to reset my compass, I set course for Sarasota, home to two bars I knew wouldn't let me down.
The first was Trader Vic's Island Bar and Grill — a chain, I know, but at least it's the original tiki-bar chain, one that purports to have invented the Mai Tai. Its signature version is brown and spicy, not cloylingly pink and sweet, but they have five others on the menu (including one made with vodka instead of rum and another that's non-alcoholic), plus other Polynesian standards like the Scorpion, Navy Grog and Rangoon Ruby. By the end, you may be tempted to pick up a coconut mug in the gift shop.
And no tiki-bar investigation would be complete without a visit to Sarasota's storied Bahi Hut cocktail lounge, an ancient dive whose legendarily mighty Mai Tais have a two-per-customer limit. It's a powerful grog, topped with a plastic skewer of cherry and pineapple. But more importantly, this place feels like the tiki bars of my dreams: Dark, intimate, with no-frills decor that's clearly of another era, yet it falls on the cool side of kitschy. Were I to find myself marooned in a tropical typhoon, this is the sort of place I'd love to stow away.
Do any bars north of the Skyway live up to the Bahi Hut's lofty standards? I found a couple that aren't far off.
The first is Mahuffer's Bar in Indian Shores. It's definitely a beach bar, but something about it does feel like tiki dive. Inside and out, this place just looks like a shipwreck: Boats, bras, buoys and bills in every corner, as far as the eye can see, with graffiti scrawled on every visible surface. This place has more character than any other place on the beach — or in all of Tampa Bay, for that matter. There's no cocktail menu, but ask for a rum runner and they'll whip you up a great one. You couldn't replicate this atmosphere with a million-dollar budget. It must be seen to be believed.
Finally, there is Zom Hee Chinese Restaurant in Seminole. Yes, a land-locked Chinese restaurant. Zom Hee's resolutely retro cocktail lounge is, in a word, spectacular. Here, the elaborate, generous and incredibly cheap (almost nothing is more than $5) cocktails take up the entire first page of the menu, including photos of eight festively festooned South Seas specialties, like the deliciously fruity Blue Hawaii and Hong Kong Bar Gin Sling. Behind the bar you'll find no fewer than three-dozen types of artfully arranged glassware, including tiki-centric vessels like coconut mugs and ceramic hula-girl tumblers. And even if tiki drinks aren't your thing, this place makes killer classic cocktails like Grasshoppers and Sloe Gin Rickeys.
After I emerged from a recent visit to Zom Hee, I noticed a late-summer storm had passed through, and I was none the wiser. To me, that's exactly want you want in a tiki bar — a place to wait out the storm before setting sail for calmer seas.