Behind this unassuming black glass façade is one of the best tiki bars in America: Smuggler’s Cove. There’s no identifying sign and I would have completely missed it if it weren’t for the driftwood sign on a nearby tree warning bar patrons to keep quiet. At night, you’d be better off looking for the red and green port and starboard lights flanking the exterior — or the line of people waiting to get in.
Rum expert and master mixologist Martin Cate, who was one of the original founders of Forbidden Island across the bay in Alameda, opened Smuggler’s Cove in late 2009 and the accolades just keep coming in. Esquire recently named it one of the Best Bars in America, a title that has also been bestowed by Food & Wine consecutive times — just to name a few.
We arrived at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday — just a half hour after they’d opened — and the place was already packed with nary a seat to be found. (The bar’s capacity is just 49 people, so get there early unless you enjoy standing in lines.) We ended up standing along the wall where you first walk in — there’s a ledge where you can set your drinks. A few friendly locals told us that Sundays and Tuesdays are the best nights.
The captivating look of the interior comes courtesy of Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez of Top Notch Kustoms. Once your eyes adjust to the glow of fish floats and pufferfish lanterns, you can glimpse the numerous nautical artifacts suspended overhead, including a giant anchor, cannon, buoys, rattan fish traps, divers helmet, ship’s masthead and rigging.
It’s such an immersive atmosphere that some people say it reminds them of The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, and I recently heard it compared to the movie “The Goonies.” (That could well be One-Eyed Willie there on the rock waterfall. Who knows?)
Set into the wooden plank walls are a few displays honoring the Bay Area’s tiki bars of yore, like Skipper Kent’s and Tiki Bob’s (pictured). The latter’s iconic tiki mug is still so coveted that apparently somebody stole it, so its predecessor is now under lock and key.
The upper level is a small, hut-like hideaway that’s decorated more traditionally tiki, with a thatched A-frame over the stairs, tapa ceiling, bamboo and bac-bac matting on the walls. About a dozen people can relax on the banquette and rattan peacock chairs around tables made to look like shipping crates. It looks like a very desirable perch, though you’d need a person in your party that wouldn’t mind making trips back down to the main bar for reinforcements.
By the waterfall is a metal staircase leading down to the basement where there’s another bar dubbed the Boathouse. All the young folk seemed to be congregating there along the banquettes, but Mr. Hockey thought it was too claustrophobic.
The Smuggler’s Cove menu is quite a tome, with chapters dedicated to Rum through the Ages (17th-20th century cocktails), Classic Libations of Prohibition-era Havana, Exotic Rum Cocktails from Legendary Tiki Bars, Exotic Cocktails Without (Gasp!) Rum (featuring gin, bourbon, tequila and more), Traditional Drinks of the Caribbean, Contemporary Rum Cocktails, and Premium Rum Flights and Cocktail Specials. To help you make a selection from the 75-plus drinks, there are thorough descriptions plus notations next to Smuggler’s Favorites and Very Strong cocktails. (The menu is not online so I’ve posted photos of each page over on Flickr.)
I ordered The Expedition ($24) not necessarily because of what was in it —- Jamaican rum, Bourbon, lime, cinnamon, honey, vanilla and coffee liqueur — but because I wanted the souvenir “Kuhiko” mug, a sunken treasure-style tiki sculpted by Crazy Al. However, it ended up being my favorite of the three we sampled. (Ceramics-wise there’s also a rum barrel and sold-out limited edition mugs like the port and starboard lanterns by Notch and skulls from Tiki Kaimuki.) Another must-try for any enthusiast of exotic cocktails is the Kona Cocktail ($9). This mixture of muddled pineapple, passion fruit, dark Jamaican rum, lime and honey is actually a secret Don the Beachcomber recipe that Jeff “Beachbum” Berry uncovered (and can be found nowhere else). The Dead Reckoning ($10) is no slouch either — it had been on my radar since Tasting Table SF wrote about it.
Smuggler’s Cove also boasts an extensive list of hundreds of rums. Serious sippers can join The Rumbustion Society — those who reach the top level of tasting 200 rums are taken on a distillery trip with Martin Cate somewhere on the globe.
Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco — as the song goes — but I’m pretty sure I left mine at Smuggler’s Cove…
650 Gough St.
San Francisco, CA 94102