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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
451-981-6300

Related Posts:
Reviews of Tiki Bars in San Francisco

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VenTiki Tiki Lounge & Lanai – Ventura, CA

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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
805-667-8887

“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