Sadly, 2012 saw the closing of several tiki bars, including the Royal Hawaiian in Laguna Beach, Hong Kong Inn in Ventura, Okolemaluna Tiki Lounge in Hawaii, Trader Vic’s Palo Alto, and Lani Kai in New York. I visited the latter before it closed in September, so here’s a tribute to one of the Polynesian-style places we lost last year.
Julie Reiner (Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club) opened Lani Kai in October 2010, naming it after an Oahu beach she frequented while growing up in Hawaii. On the bar’s web site, she stated: “My favorite drinks are the Manhattan and the Mai Tai, and I have always wanted to create a destination that blends the two places I call home.”
In interviews she made sure to clarify that Lani Kai was not a tiki bar but a “modern tropical” cocktail lounge with more minimalist décor — and indeed there were no tikis, thatch or bamboo to be found. Rather, the dimly lit dining area featured whitewashed brick walls with boxes of tropical plants and orchids, a bar in the back with a wooden trellis above, and an impressive capiz shell chandelier suspended over the stairwell.
Downstairs was the lounge area with red banquettes, simple wooden tables and chairs, bamboo wallpaper, hanging ferns and a stone fireplace, plus another bar.
The menu was pretty brief and seemed to offer mostly small plates. We composed our own pupu platter with awesome bacon-wrapped shrimp and crab rangoon, along with huli huli yakitori (chicken skewers), char siu baby back ribs, and chicken wings with basil dipping sauce.
We also put away a few of the pork belly buns (though not enough, apparently, to spare me from a hangover the next day after we continued the evening at PKNY).
I wanted to try a straightforward tiki drink so I opted for the Kamehameha Rum Punch ($13, Nicaraguan and dark Jamaican rums, lemon, fresh pineapple juice, grenadine and crème de mure), based on a 1960s recipe from the Hotel King Kamehameha, while Mr. Baseball’s drink was made with whisky and absinthe. Both were perfectly balanced and exactly what I’d expect from a high-quality establishment, though in hindsight I wish I’d gone for one of the creative concoctions made with tea-infused spirits, lemongrass, lychee or jalapeno syrups.
So this brings me to another resolution we all should make for 2013 — support your local (and not so local) tiki bars!