Tampa's modern cocktail scene started with Ciro's, a Prohibition-themed speakeasy with a hidden entrance that required a password.
The concept seems familiar now, as it's been repeated in various forms across the bay area and, indeed, across the nation over the years. The gimmick is still fun, but the novelty of the speakeasy theme has faded, as the emphasis has rightfully shifted from secret passwords and attire from the 1920s to high-end crafted drinks in intimate settings.
A glimmer of the early speakeasy excitement appeared late last month with the unveiling of the Hidden Star Tiki Bar, a mysterious concept launched by the folks at Anise Global Gastrobar in downtown Tampa. Open just two nights a week and with a near-guaranteed wait of an hour or more to get in, Hidden Star quickly generated a buzz despite no exterior sign and precious little online presence.
A friend visiting from Miami graciously did the heavy lifting for me, checking in at the Anise podium and reserving our spot in line as I drove from the other side of the bay. I arrived at Anise and shot the breeze while we waited some more, occasionally scanning the room for the entrance to this alleged tiki bar, hidden somewhere in the depths of the restaurant.
Finally, our number came up. A host met us at the podium, and then walked us outside and around the corner of the building, to the entrance of a clothing shop. We walked through a room of sewing machines and fabric and ended up at a tall mirror that was actually a secret door leading into Hidden Star Tiki Bar.
The place is tiny, which explains the wait. It can seat about eight people at the bar, while accommodating another 10 or so comfortably at tables along the wall. With bar staff, you're looking at about 20 people to really pack the house. The bar is open until 2 a.m. and sometimes later, but seating ends at midnight, so plan on showing up before 11 p.m.
The first thing I noticed was the fun and colorful decor, which had no resemblance whatsoever to anything you'd expect to find in a speakeasy-style lounge.
The next thing I noticed as I pulled apart the cocktail menu — folded into an origami paper fortune teller with a small yellow flower nested in the middle — was the elaborate presentation of the drinks on the bar. Exactly zero drinks were served in a typical glass or tiki mug; instead, cocktails were in glass bulbs swinging from chains attached to a wide metal base (the Oh Mai! Tai cocktail), in football-sized palm frond-styled mugs adorned with little metal flowers (Under Doug) and in decked out coconut milk cans (Call Me in the Morning).
If the drinks inside these bold vessels were anything short of excellent, scoffing might be warranted. Rest assured that this is not the case. The eight cocktails on the menu are the real deal: potent tropical drinks made with various rums, fresh fruits and juices and exotic house-made syrups.
Some are mostly traditional, like the Hidden Star Rum Barrel (Santa Teresa 1796 rum, citrus, pineapple, lime, allspice, Angostura and orange bitters) and the aforementioned Oh Mai! Tai. Others, like the 5 Spice Daiquiri, give a tiki classic some Anise flair with the addition of Chinese five-spice syrup.
Other drinks are wholly original, like the surprising Under Doug, a blend of Barcelo Imperial rum, Cynar (an artichoke-flavored Italian amaro), Cointreau, coffee, pineapple and citrus.
The next time I looked at my watch, it was closing time. Tiki bars and speakeasies are well-trodden territory in Tampa Bay, but Hidden Star manages to feel special in spite of this. The bar's small quarters come with an inherent vibe of exclusivity elevated by the over-the-top presentation of the bar's eight excellent cocktails, and the dialed-in focus of the beverage program really makes it all shine.
— Contact Justin Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @WordsWithJG.
Hidden Star Tiki Bar
777 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. (813) 225-4272.
The vibe: A tiki-speakeasy crossover filled with fun kitsch and excellent rum drinks.
Food: Snacks, $7.
Booze: Cocktails, $14-$18.
Specialty: It's no surprise that rum is the focus of this tiki bar, with an honorable mention going to the cachaça featured in the Bird of Paradise cocktail. The drinks are outstanding across the board, but even more noteworthy is the elaborate presentation, from a bisected upside-down pineapple used as a mug in the aforementioned Bird of Paradise, to a massive thatched elephant housing a punchbowl used to serve the shareable Tiki for Two.
Hours: 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Thursday. Seating ends at midnight on Friday and Saturday.