“Secret” Tiki Room at Tonga Hut Palm Springs

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What’s better than a secret entrance to a hidden room? A secret entrance to a hidden TIKI room! That’s one of the highlights of Tonga Hut Palm Springs, a desert offshoot of the North Hollywood tiki bar. (See my previous post for the full review.)

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In the hallway between The Hideaway dining room and the kitchen you might notice an old-fashioned telephone booth. Step into this anachronism, push against the wall and you’ll find yourself seemingly transported to another place and time.

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There’s another false wall next to the phone booth that can let more people in, but for me it doesn’t get any better than that phone booth. It’s like the tiki equivalent of Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4.

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While the lounge and bar area have more of a sleek, mid-century modern feel, this is where you’ll really get that sense of tiki’s tropical escapism (reminiscent of the original in North Hollywood). Perching over the half-circle booth is a bamboo overhang supported by carved tiki poles. Neou panels cover the ceiling and there’s lauhala matting and tapa cloth on the walls, plus Papua New Guinea-style masks.

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On the opposite wall is a red banquette and lots of nautical touches, including a Chinese sailing painting, rigging and rope, brass anchor lantern and model ship.

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Proper lighting is important in a tiki room, and helping to the set the perfect tone are these lovely lanterns. Almost all of the vintage artifacts came from the homes of the co-owners, the Boylans and Murphys, who have been collecting for years. (The spears and shrunken head were contributed by Danny aka Tiki Diablo.)

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I thought I spotted a small barrel lamp from Bahooka and my suspicions were confirmed by Tiki Diablo, who was there on opening weekend working on the adjacent covered patio. (There you’ll find more nautical objects and burlap-covered benches made to look like rum crates.)

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To dine in this “secret” tiki room, you’ll need to call in advance and secure the reservation with a $100 refundable deposit. If this space doesn’t inspire you to head to Palm Springs immediately, I don’t know what will!

Related Posts:
Full Review of Tonga Hut Palm Springs
Other Tiki Things in Palm Springs

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Tonga Hut – Palm Springs, CA

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Next year Palm Springs Modernism Week will celebrate its 10th installment and it seems like appreciation for mid-century modern architecture keeps growing, so now is a great time for the city to get a quality tiki bar. (Sorry, Toucans.) And what better venue to deliver that than the Tonga Hut, the oldest still-operating tiki bar in Los Angeles.

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This new Palm Springs branch is bigger and boasts a prime second-floor location on North Palm Canyon Drive right across the street from the Hyatt and just a few blocks from the Hilton. It was initially scheduled to open last fall but permit delays pushed the grand opening to this past Valentine’s Day.

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After climbing the stairs you’ll find the host’s stand and a small waiting area with a few big tikis, lava rock wall and three-tiered shell fountain. On the left is the bar, lounge and balcony terrace. The North Hollywood location got a mid-century-style makeover a few years ago and the decor here takes many of the same cues, including a mod fireplace against a rock wall, bench seating with pillows, resin chunk lamps and Witco-esque works by Bosko (like the Map of the World).

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Tiki Diablo and Chase Marshall designed the look, which features vintage items like this Easter Island mosaic along with contributions from many artists in the tiki community, among them Leroy Schmaltz from Oceanic Arts, Eric October, Bosko, Kirby, Nelson’s Tiki Hut and “Mad Dog” Mike Gilbert.

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Colorful, glowing fish float lights give the terrace a nice atmosphere at night. This balcony has more of a tiki feel to it with an outrigger canoe and bamboo poles overhead. I’m sure this makes a great people-watching perch.

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Unlike the original Tonga Hut, this branch serves food as well as cocktails. In all these seating areas I’ve mentioned you can order appetizers, salads and desserts, but the full menu is only available in The Hideaway dining room. The entrees and sides are split into two cuisine categories: “Polynesian-Cantonese Tiki Style” (kalua pork, pineapple fried rice, cashew ding chicken) and “Midcentury Steakhouse” (New York strip steak, baked potato, lobster macaroni and cheese).

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If you want a full meal you should definitely make reservations as there are only five tables in the dining room, which is off to the right from the host’s stand. (Also on this side of the space is the “secret” tiki room. It’s so awesome that I must dedicate en entire post to it, so keep an eye out for that.)

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One of the walls is completely covered in gorgeous carvings, and each of the private red vinyl booths has its own shadow box displaying photographs and memorabilia from vintage tiki bars of Palm Springs’ past (South Pacific Room at El Mirador, Romanoff’s, etc.).

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The most interesting thing on the lounge menu seemed to be the lomi hamachi ($11), a riff on lomi salmon, composed of raw yellowtail, daikon, kohlrabi, white soy dressing and shoyu shaved ice served in a martini glass. It was cool and refreshing and exactly what I’d want to order on a sweltering desert day (or evening).

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More hit and miss was the pupu platter ($22 for two), which had two bites each of shrimp toast, crab Rangoon, teriyaki beef, duck rumaki, egg rolls and spare ribs. We loved the egg rolls and the rich, creamy crab Rangoon with sriracha mayo, but the rumaki had a thick, crunchy batter that overpowered the duck liver and prosciutto.

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Desserts were smaller than expected. We preferred the macadamia fluff pie ($9) over the haole chocolate cake ($9). We had a tough time trying to get the fork to break through the top layer of chocolate.

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The pineapple upside down cake ($9) arrived with a blaze of blue flames but here again we thought the portion was a bit puny for the price. (Update: I’ve now heard that the desserts are bigger than before. Sweet!)

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Marie King has put together quite an impressive cocktail menu with more than 40 drinks. In addition to “The Classics” (Manhattan, Negroni, Moscow Mule) and “Tiki Classics” (Mai Tai, 1934 Zombie, Navy Grog) there are several Tonga Hut Original Drinks, including ones that are exclusive to the Palms Springs location like Rose’s First Date ($10) made with vodka, rose and housemade date syrup.

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We were intrigued and quite pleased by some of the more unusual flavor combinations, like the chai spice and coconut Chai Tai ($11) and Lucha Libre ($11) with Deadhead Rum and tamarind-chili syrup (pictured). If you’re looking for more of a deal, there’s a daily happy hour from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. and 10 p.m.-12 a.m. with $2 off Mai Tais and $4 appetizers (egg rolls, teriyaki beef and huli huli chicken skewers).

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Extra presentation points go to the Tonga Hut Treasure ($11) from the “Bowl Drinks” section, served in a Tiki Farm shell bowl with the Tonga Hut logo. Our interest was piqued by this description: “This creamy, almond and light rum potion comes with a surprise at the bottom of the bowl. Find the pearl and take it home…” (Spoiler alert: It’s a cute pearly pendant.)

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Be sure to take a look at the “Locals’ Originals” on the back of the menu. From past experience, I can say the Jungle Jetsetter ($10) is sweet and delicious and Reverb Crash ($11) is a favorite that I’ve made at home. This visit I went for Ron de Los Muertos ($11), a heylownine creation with dark Jamaican rum, vanilla and chocolate, and it was a winner, too.

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There are signature T-shirts and barrel mugs for sale, plus the Tonga Hut Palm Springs Facebook page posted some photos of new tiki mug designs coming soon. This bar will definitely be a destination for me anytime we’re out in the desert. Tonga Hut in North Hollywood just celebrated its 55th anniversary and hopefully the Tonga Hut Palm Springs will also enjoy such longevity.

Tonga Hut Palm Springs
254 N. Palm Canyon Dr.
Palm Springs, CA 92262
760-322-4449

Related Posts:
More Tiki in Palm Springs
Tiki Wonderland Event at the Tonga Hut
Palm Springs Modernism Week Coverage

Thrilled by Three Dots and a Dash – Chicago

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Chicago’s suburbs have beloved tiki spots like Hala Kahiki, Chef Shangri-la and Tiki Terrace, but there hadn’t been much in the city since the new incarnation of Trader Vic’s closed in 2011. Yes, there’d been some tiki nights and menus at bars around town (The Terrace at Trump, Curio, The Whistler, etc.) but nowhere with a tropical setting to match.

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That changed in July 2013, when the much-anticipated Three Dots and a Dash opened in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. It’s a project from Paul McGee (formerly of The Whistler) and R.J. and Jerrod Melman of the Chicago restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You (Everest, L2O, Tru). The bar’s name pays tribute to the drink Three Dots and a Dash. Don the Beachcomber, who also invented the Zombie (and tiki bars, for that matter), created it in honor of the end of World War II. (In Morse code, three dots and a dash means “V” — as in “Victory.”)

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The Clark Street address is sort of deceiving as the speakeasy-style entrance is actually down an alley off Hubbard, directly across the street from Paris Club (another LEY venture where you can valet, though apparently there are a few self-park garages nearby too.) Look for blue glowing lights and a couple heat lamps and you’ll find a blue door and above it a small sign for Three Dots and a Dash.

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You’ll enter a dark corridor and then go left down a set of stairs underneath an eerily lit wall of spooky skulls — sort of like you’ve stepped into an Indiana Jones movie. Keep going and you’ll find the host desk, which is one several relics purchased at auction after Trader Vic’s closed, and then the dining room is on the left.

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But before that is the semi-hidden entrance to the private room, decked out with leopard-print banquettes, lots of fake (but very realistic) pillar candles and a revealing black velvet painting on the wall.

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Blue and green fish float lanterns give a mysterious glow to the main space. Big round leather booths line the walls while four-top tables fill the center of the room. The showpiece is the gorgeous thatched roof bar with about a dozen barstools where you can admire the extensive rum collection.

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Some tiki bars cultivate clutter, but this one keeps things more minimalistic in some spots like this corner with just a few spotlit ukuleles and tikis above the sleek banquettes. (The tikis that McGee snapped up in the auction date back to the 1950s and the original Chicago Trader Vic’s at the Palmer House hotel.)

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According to Serious Eats, the Melman brothers visited some of “London’s famed tiki bars” before starting this venture. Clearly, Mahiki must have made an impression — though thankfully there’s no dress code or velvet rope attitude here. Three Dots and a Dash even serves their own version of the Treasure Chest, also topped with a bottle of Champagne and presented in a wooden chest made by Cheeky Tiki. (Reminds me of how both the Mai-Kai in Florida and Kahiki in Ohio had the ritual of the Mystery Drink presented by a lovely Mystery Girl, which the Mai-Kai still performs to this day.)

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Three Dots and a Dash has a capacity of 240 but it’s still a new place — and a fun novelty for Chicagoans suffering through the winter — so you’ll likely find a line on popular nights. If you arrive quite early like we did you shouldn’t have any issues and you might even get to hear some exotica music — much preferable to the DJ that goes on later when it becomes more of a nightclub scene. Reservations are now accepted online.

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The menu is beautifully illustrated in a vintage style with pictures of the drinks alongside their descriptions. Half are “classics” (Mai Tai, Jet Pilot, Three Dots and a Dash) while the other eight are “modern” concoctions from McGee. Each of these is priced at $13. Then there’s a section for shareable options like the Zombie Punch ($65 serves 3-4) and aforementioned Treasure Chest No. 1 ($385 serves 6-8). On top of all this there’s also a separate tome listing more than 200 rums for tasting, plus 16 classic rum cocktails (daiquiri, Navy Grog, Hurricane, etc.).

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My favorite — and Chicago magazine’s, too – was the Painkiller No. 3, a creamy, dreamy combination of Bajan rum, Jamaican rum, coconut liqueur, passionfruit and pineapple. Named after a lyric from “South Pacific,” A Lonely Island Lost in the Middle of a Foggy Sea is a riff on the Mr. Bali Hai featuring aged rhum agricole, blackstrap rum, Indian rum, cold brew coffee, pineapple and lime. It’s labeled with a skull warning of its “impressive strength” and it’s no joke. Our designated driver asked for a recommendation on a drink to get sans alcohol and our server suggested the Poipu Beach Boogie Board. This sweet and tart tipple of guava, maraschino, grenadine, pineapple and lemon is usually given a kick with rye whiskey and overproof rum.

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I’m not a fan of bananas, but I still insisted we get Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri for the garnish, a half banana turned into a dolphin. Don’t expect too much sweetness when you sip this blend of fresh banana, coconut liqueur, lime, Jamaican rum, spiced rum and overproof rum. Of course we also had to order the namesake drink, here made with aged rhum agricole, Guyanese rum, honey, falernum, lime, allspice and Angostura bitters. It was a well-balanced winner, presented with three Luxardo cherries and a pineapple spear. (Three dots and a dash, get it?)

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Foodwise, there’s a small menu of about 10 small plates and we sampled almost all of them, starting with the “luau chips” ($9). The pineapple-flecked guacamole came with puffed rice crackers, though I probably would have preferred tortilla chips.

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The Thai fried chicken ($11), which is highlighted on the menu as a signature dish, was a hit with us and disappeared the fastest. The boneless nuggets were lightly breaded and doused in an amazing garlic-chili sauce. Crag Rangoon ($11) is usually heavy on the cream cheese, but the filling in this rendition was actually loaded with blue crab. It came with a tray of four dipping sauces: Thai chili, peanut (so good!), sweet and sour (also tasty) and hot mustard (not too spicy). The award for best pupu presentation would go to the coconut shrimp ($13), which are served in half a coconut perched on top of panko breadcrumb “sand.”

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The meat on the Polynesian spare ribs ($16) didn’t fall off the bone but the pineapple glaze was tasty enough. Also decent were the Hanali spring rolls ($12) and curry chicken skewers ($13) though with such steep prices for small portions I think next time we’ll pass on all three of these and stick with the Thai fried chicken and crab Rangoon.

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(Photo by Three Dots and a Dash)

I love when tiki bars come out with souvenir mugs custom made for them, and Three Dots and a Dash already has three designs produced by Tiki Farm. First was the blue sea urchin mug, definitely one of the most beautiful mugs I’ve ever seen, then came this golden bamboo mug and a likeness of McGee with seashell spectacles ($20 each). They also serve and sell several other styles of Tiki Farm mugs, including a few imprinted with the bar’s logo.

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Three Dots and a Dash takes the state of tiki in Chicago to a new level with its serious mixology, good food, signature mugs and swizzle sticks, and impeccable decor that provides the perfect setting for a bit of tropical escapism. It should come as no surprise that I’ve added Three Dots and a Dash to my list of the Top Tiki Bars in America.

Three Dots and a Dash
435 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60654
312-610-4220

Related Posts:
Reviews of Tiki Bars in Chicago

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