Make us your home page

Tampa Bay's best tiki bars deliver plenty of South Seas surprises

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.

Bahi Hut

4675 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 355-5141.

Bamboo Beach Bar

13025 Village Blvd., Madeira Beach. (727) 398-5401,

Hula Bay Club

5210 W Tyson Ave., Tampa. (813) 837-4852,

Mahuffer's Bar

19201 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores. (727) 596-0226,

Tahitian Inn

601 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 877-6721,

Trader Vic's Island Bar and Grill

351 N Cattlemen Road, Sarasota. (941) 378-3900,

Zom Hee Chinese Restaurant

9015 Park Blvd., Seminole. (727) 391-8393,

Scan this page with your Layar app to see a video of our Things to Do crew's quest for a great tiki bar. Need help? See Page 26.

Tampa Bay's best tiki bars deliver plenty of South Seas surprises 08/21/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 23, 2013 1:07pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Interview: Steve Martin, Martin Short bringing 'best version' of their show back to St. Petersburg


    Hot celebrity-spotting tip: Stop by the Salvador Dalí Museum on Jan. 19. You might catch a glimpse of Steve Martin.

    Steve Martin, left, and Martin Short will bring “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life” to the Mahaffey Theater on Jan. 19.
  2. Seminole Heights restaurants face struggles amid killings, post-Irma

    Food & Dining

    TAMPA — The neighborhood's hip circle of popular, well-regarded restaurants is feeling the squeeze in the wake of a recent killing spree. And the timing is rough.

    Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe has been taking precautions in light of the Seminole Heights killings: keeping the lights on all night and having employees walk to their cars in groups.
  3. Josbite goes all out, gets results with annual musical, 'The Threepenny Opera'


    TAMPA — As the house lights dimmed for the second act, burglars and pickpockets, prostitutes and scam artists weaved between the little tables of the Jaeb Theater, warning customers they'd best wind down their talking and silence their phones. This was done with a wink but the point was made. This is elitism …

    Miscreants in Jobsite Theater's The Threepenny Opera, which runs through Nov. 12, include (from left) Amy E. Gray, Jonathan Harrison, Giselle Muise, Chris Jackson, Fo'i Meleah, and Derrick Phillips. Courtesy of Jobsite Theater.
  4. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for Oct. 24


    On Your Feet: The Broadway musical follows the true story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan's journey as Cuban immigrants coming to America to becoming pop-crossover sensation Miami Sound Machine. 7:30 p.m., Carol Morsani Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $45 and up. (813) …

    Alma Cuervo (far left), an Academy of the Holy Names graduate, stars in the upcoming production of "On Your Feet" at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday (Oct. 24). Also pictured, Claudia Yanez (as Rebecca), Christie Prades (as Gloria) and Nancy Ticotin (as Gloria Fajardo). Photo by Matthew Murphy
  5. Hip-hop artist looks to deliver music, monologues with one-woman show


    Tampa hip-hop artist and actress Dynasty takes her career into a new direction Saturday at Stageworks Theatre with her first one-woman show: A Star in Life's Clothing : Life. Love. Language. Lyrics.

    Hip-hop artist and actress Dynasty will present a one-woman show Saturday (Oct. 28) at Stageworks Theatre. Photo courtesy of @JoeyClayStudio.