A Tricky Trio – Players Sports Grill, Tiki Bar & Arcade, San Francisco


On our last visit to San Francisco, Mr. Hockey found an ad in our little tourist map for Players Sports Grill & Arcade that billed it as “San Francisco’s only waterfront tiki bar.” He asked me if I knew about it and I snobbishly insisted that it couldn’t be a real tiki bar.


Our wanderings along the Embarcadero did eventually take us to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, and Mr. Hockey wanted to see if Players was legit. I remained skeptical about a sports bar, arcade and tiki bar coexisting under one roof.


The front area looked like your typical sports bar, but then we spotted this little kiosk with a Lono (Hawaiian tiki) and a sign pointing towards the Luau Lounge tiki bar that was 50 steps away.


But first you have to navigate through a little labyrinth of video games and skee ball to the back of the establishment. (I suppose if you have kids you could let them loose here while you go enjoy a drink?)


Coincidentally they even have an arcade game that features Moai among the graphics. Cruis’n Exotica — no relation to the musical genre, as far as I can tell — is the 1999 sequel to the racing games Cruis’n USA and Cruis’n World. Alas, it doesn’t look like Easter Island is one of the available tracks.


Maybe it’s the obscure location but the Luau Lounge was a surprisingly serene oasis in the middle of this tourist trap area. Not too many folks had ventured back there that afternoon and there was vintage and modern jazz on the soundspeakers.


Once you pass the tikis standing sentinel at the bar’s entrance, you’ll find a thatched hut bar in the center of the room manned by a bartender in a Hawaiian shirt.


My expectations had been quite low so I was a bit surprised to see that the decor was actually pretty decent, with tapa print and bamboo on the walls, fish float and pufferfish lanterns, and prints of Eugene Savage’s Hawaii-inspired art. These were featured on the menus for the Matson Lines steamships traveling from the West Coast to Hawaii in the late 1940s. (You might also recognize them from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel — or that “Mad Men” episode filmed there.


To top it all off, there are fantastic views of Alcatraz and the bay from pretty much every seat in the house.


But then things took a turn for the worse when I opened the cocktail menu. Granted, most places that serve Mai Tais don’t make them the way Trader Vic intended, but to call these “Tiki Classics” is too much.


At least they delivered the Mai Tai ($11) in a tiki glass, though. We also had to order the appropriately named Cruzan Confusion ($11) because it sounded like such an abomination of a beverage. Made with pineapple juice and four flavored Cruzan rums, it reminded me of those “suicide” fountain drinks we’d make as kids by mixing all the different sodas together.


Normally I wouldn’t advocate drinking beer at a tiki bar, but here that may be your best bet. There are about a dozen options on draft, including local brews like Anchor Steam ($6) and a few rotating seasonal taps.


With so many great tiki bars in the San Francisco/Bay Area (Smuggler’s Cove, Tonga Room, Trader Vic’s, Forbidden Island), I can’t honestly recommend going out of your way for the Luau Lounge at Players Sports Grill. However, if you’re already at Fisherman’s Wharf anyway, you could do worse!

Players Sports Grill, Tiki Bar & Arcade
Pier 39
San Francisco, CA 94133

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Reviews of Tiki Bars in San Francisco

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VenTiki Tiki Lounge & Lanai – Ventura, CA


We’ve passed through Ventura many times driving on the 101 from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, but we were never really compelled to stop by this coastal town until VenTiki Tiki Lounge & Lanai came along.


This new tiki bar in Ventura opened its thatched A-frame entrance to the public in July 2013. Owners Scott Noble and his cousin Stacey grew up visiting Polynesian-inspired restaurants and, along with their friend Kari Lewis, they’ve created their own slice of tiki paradise.


The smallish bar area inside has some classic elements of tiki décor, including bamboo, lauhala matting on the walls, netted fish float lamps and a tiki (carved by VonTiki, who also made the one outside). The TV behind the bar is often tuned to suitably tropical-themed entertainment like “Gilligan’s Island” and “Swiss Family Robinson.”


Meanwhile, there’s also a mid-century modern/vintage-style vibe from the hexagonal bar shelves, pop of bright orange paint, Witco wooden sword and resin chunk lamps (made by Nelson’s Tiki Hut). My favorite feature may be these borders filled in with pieces of bamboo in various sizes. That’s something I don’t think I’ve seen before.


I’d say the best seats in the house are at the bar, though it’s tempting to enjoy the sunshine on the pet-friendly patio. There are rattan tables and chairs plus an elevated little seating alcove among the palm trees, tiki torches and a neat blue rock firepit that must look neat at night.


Behind this volcanic rock waterfall with a Moai at the top is a mural based on the menu art from Zombie Village in Oakland, CA. (The maiden was originally topless like the source material, but a flower lei for modesty had to be added because some locals complained, apparently.)


VenTiki’s cocktail menu features 11 “Classic Tiki” drinks, with each credited to its inventor, place of origin and year created — a little history lesson with your rum. The Mai Tai ($11) is based on Trader Vic’s 1944 recipe, and it’s exemplary. Another favorite of mine is the Lapu Lapu ($12), here made with Ron Matusalem Clasico, Whaler’s Dark Rum, passion fruit, pineapple and citrus.


There are also several “Modern Tiki” drinks unique to VenTiki with wonderfully evocative names like Lagoon of Forbidden Desire and Voodoo Temptress of the Seven Pleasures. I snapped this photo too late to capture the effect, but the Altar of Sacrifice ($10) is presented with a float of Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters that drips down like blood. (It also tastes quite good in addition to looking cool.)


Everyone who completes the VenTiki Challenge by drinking their way through the menu — and having the bartenders stamp a card to prove it — gets a T-shirt, VenTiki coconut mug (produced by Tiki Farm) and a mini drink umbrella to personalize and put behind the bar. The first 100 people to finish will also be honored with their name on a plaque. A fair amount of imbibers have already accomplished this so I have some catching up to do. (Tiki tOny designed the logo tiki that appears on the card as well as on the souvenir Mai Tai glasses, T-shirts and hoodies available for purchase.)


A new chef is running the kitchen so the food offerings have evolved a bit. Build-your-own burgers, sushi and a few more poke variations have recently been added to the menu of pupus, salads and torta sandwiches with kahlua pork, salmon or seared tuna. The latter come with a choice of sides: macaroni salad, potato salad, pineapple coleslaw, Hawaiian chips or sticky rice.


I think I would have been a bigger fan of the Cali Poke Bowl ($16.95) if the chopped ahi tuna had been marinated more like traditional Hawaiian poke. Sabu’s Coconut Chicken Skewers ($9.95) should be familiar to frequenters of Tiki Central, though here they’re served with a “secret tiki sauce” and seem to be missing the curry flavor from the original recipe. (Not a complaint — just an observation.)


We were trying to decide on one of the sushi rolls, and they recommended the eel roll ($11.95), a tasty combination of blue crab and mango topped with eel, avocado and eel sauce. I also couldn’t resist getting an order of the Kraken salmon sushi ($4.95) so I could sample the Kraken rum sweet soy sauce.


Cast all dietary cares aside and dig into the loco moco ($9.95), that infamous Hawaiian dish made with sticky rice, Spam, two eggs and brown sauce. I prefer my loco moco with runnier eggs and thicker gravy, but the sambal chile sauce gives this version a nice kick.


There are “Tsunami Warnings” aka happy hour Mon.-Fri. from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. (and all day Tuesdays) with half off Mai Tais, Modern Tiki drinks and appetizers (except the pepper seared tuna). Keep an eye on the VenTiki Facebook page to hear about nightly specials like Magnum Mondays and Beachbum Wednesdays plus events like the recent VenTiki Whip Weekend. (They served up their own version of Dole Whip in a float with Whaler’s Dark Rum and pineapple juice. If only the Enchanted Tiki Room could do the same!)


Hopefully I’ve convinced you that VenTiki is worth a detour, if not a dedicated roadtrip. It’s just an hour-long drive from LA — provided the tiki gods don’t curse you with bad traffic.


Another bonus? Within stumbling distance of VenTiki is the beach and the Ventura Pier. Just walk south on Ash Street for a few blocks and you’ll find the pedestrian bridge over the freeway to the beach.

VenTiki Tiki Lounge & Lanai
701 E. Main St.
Ventura, CA 93001

Tonga Hut – Palm Springs, CA


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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).


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.)


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.).


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).


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.


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.


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!)


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.


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).


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.)


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.


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

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