Black. That is all we can see when we step through the heavy door and thick curtains that cloak the Shameful Tiki Room from the outside world. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, fuzzy images begin to emerge – a thatched bamboo roof here, a hanging puffer fish there. Slowly, a Polynesian paradise lit up by glowing glass fishing floats beckons before us.
Feel like escaping it all? You don’t have to go far if you live in Vancouver. The new Shameful Tiki Room on Main Street has recreated a bygone era, one that joyously celebrates tropical tastes and South Pacific kitsch.
This faux-beachside bar is the rum-sozzled lovechild of Tiki enthusiast “Rocket” Rod Moore, who also owns the Modern Bartender, a cocktail supply store. Last summer, he provided a sneak preview of his vision at the Hideaway, a tiny, lushly thatched, twinkly patio nestled into the rear parking lot at the Narrow Lounge farther south on Main Street.
His new lounge is also small (only 50 seats), but it’s so much more meticulously detailed. In every dark nook and cranny, you’ll find wooden Tiki carvings and colourful tribal-print cloths imported from Tonga and Fiji. Vintage mugs sculpted in the images of goddesses and headhunters grin down from plank shelves. The tables are covered in laminated menus from famous, long-vanished cocktail bars. Old surf-band album covers march along walls, while hula girls shake their hips from framed prints in the bathrooms.
Sitting at a bar wrapped in weaved palm fronds, we feel like we’ve been transported to Honolulu, circa 1950. The bartenders wear hibiscus-print shirts and jaunty straw hats. The patrons, decked out in tank tops and sporting sunburned noses, lean over their flaming drinks and share easy laughs with strangers. There are no inhibitions, no pretension. Ukuleles softly strum in the background. The WiFi doesn’t work. It honestly feels as if we’re away on vacation.
When it opened in March, the Shameful Tiki Room became Vancouver’s first full-fledged Polynesian-themed restaurant and lounge since Trader Vic’s at the Westin Bayshore Hotel closed in 1994.
Sure, there’s the resplendent Tiki Lounge at the Waldorf Hotel (which reopened the same week, after the historic building was sold amid much controversy to developers).
But even with its fabulous fake palm trees, domed ceiling and Edgar Leetag black-velvet paintings, the Waldorf has not recently excelled at authentic Tiki cocktails or bothered to offer any sort of Polynesian-inspired food.
The Shameful Tiki Room has both, although the drinks are the main draw. Hard-core aficionados will be glad to hear that Mr. Moore and his crew are obsessive about handcrafting classic Tiki cocktails the same way Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber did in their day. Limes and lemons are squeezed in vintage hand presses that extract the oils from the skins. Orgeat and falernum syrups are made from scratch. The smell of fresh mint, used each night by the boxful, wafts over the wood. Booze is measured with jiggers and ginger beer is poured from bottles. There aren’t any juice guns.
“Oh, my gosh!” my girlfriend cries as we watch the bartender mix a Trader Vic’s style Mai Tai from a dozen different tinctures and potions lined up in front of us. The drink is as strong and potent as she imagines. We can almost feel the hair growing on our chests. For something a little more smooth and approachable, may we suggest a creamy Pain Killer, blended with coconut milk and cinnamon?
Fortunately, for us, the Shameful offers food to soak up all that alcohol. For the most part, it comes on skewers with sweet pineapple-fried rice. The coconut-drizzled shrimp and almond-flecked chicken were not exactly memorable, save for their maraschino cherry garnish. But the rice did a fine job of coating our stomachs. (No hangover the next day.) And the daily special, a sesame-splashed tuna poke with rice noodles, was actually quite tasty.
By the end of the night, the entire bar was screaming out “Mystery Bowl!” every time the flaming grog was ordered, heralded by a celebratory gong from behind the bar. It was a fun, breezy evening. My only complaint has to do with service.
Two bartenders were working that evening. One young fellow served the restaurant, the other, a more experienced veteran, manned the bar. That meant that the latter fellow spent most of the evening chatting up a few customers while the other worked his butt off. This unfair division of labour may part be the mystique – every decent Tiki needs a charming player – but it left me with a slightly sour impression that had nothing to do with those freshly squeezed limes.