Smuggler’s Cove – San Francisco, CA

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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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 successor is now under lock and key.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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…

Smuggler’s Cove
650 Gough St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
415-869-1900

Smuggler's Cove on Urbanspoon

Forbidden Island – Alameda, CA

So I’m finally wrapping up my weekend tiki tour of San Francisco, which included the Trader Vic’s warehouse, Pier 39, and the Tonga Room. (I’m kicking myself for missing Trader Vic’s Emeryville before they closed for remodeling, but anyway…) We’ll file this post under “Better Late than Never.”

Forbidden Island was opened in 2006 by brothers Michael & Emmanuel Thanos (Conga Lounge in Oakland) and Martin Cate (who left to open Smuggler’s Cove). It’s located in Alameda, a city just south of Oakland that I’ve mostly only heard of as a test site on “Mythbusters” (but thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that it’s also famous for Victorian houses and an awesome-sounding 1920s-era amusement park called Neptune Beach).

It was all done up by the amazing Bamboo Ben and other tiki design masters and features a long bar, a few booths and an outdoor patio. Sidenote: There’s just something mesmerizing to me about light-up fish floats, love ’em!

We experienced some wicked traffic on the way out of San Francisco, which left us with only enough time for me to do a quick lap around the vendor tables at their annual parking lot sale and pick up a few Doug Horne mini-prints.

Dollar bills and drink umbrellas dot the thatched hut’s ceiling inside, and according to their FAQ: “It started as a local tradition soon after we opened, and has been going strong ever since. In WWII, sailors shipping out to the Pacific would leave a dollar at their local bar to get a drink when they got back. Don’t forget to leave a message on them!”

In fact, it was such a short trip (and the bar quite packed with parched folks from the event) that I didn’t even get a chance to try any of their many libations. For shame, I know. Just gives me another reason to come back!


Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge
1304 Lincoln Ave.
Alameda, CA 94501
510-749-0332

Tonga Room – San Francisco, CA

When we first started planning our trip to San Francisco, I knew that we had to hit up the Tonga Room (not to be confused with the Tonga Hut down in NoHo), since it’s considered to be high on the list of endangered tiki establishments.

Unfortunately, the Fairmont folks have gotten the idea in their heads that they can make more money by turning the land where the Tonga Room is into condos. (Even more unfortunate is the fact that this is a familiar story. I’m looking at you, Beverly Hilton!) There’s an effort to Save the Tonga Room, but it’s going to be difficult to stop the developers.

The Tonga Room feels more like an attraction at Disneyland than a restaurant: diners are seated in an enormous A-frame with outrigger canoes or beneath thatched huts with a simulated night sky above. Not to mention the “rain storm” that occurs every 20 minutes or so, with thunder sounds and lightning and water falling into the lagoon (yep, there is actually a pool inside the restaurant).

The space started out in the 1920s as the swimming pool underneath the lobby of the Fairmont San Francisco, and then in 1945 it was transformed into this nautical-themed restaurant by Mel Melvin, a set designer for MGM. He kept the water feature relevant by ingeniously turning it into an aquatic arena for live music.

And that’s still done to this day! A cover band performs on a boat-slash-stage that they float out to the middle of the lagoon. As expected, their set was kind of cheesy, but their Jackson 5 renditions were quite the crowd-pleasers.

However, the Tonga Room wasn’t truly tiki-fied until it was remodeled in the ’60s with décor from Oceanic Arts (you might know them from another little project they were a part of…The Enchanted Tiki Room).

Ever since the word got out about a year ago about the seemingly imminent closure, there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in the old gal. There was a $7 music cover charge on the Friday night we went, but the place was still packed, with most people crowded into the bar area.

Not only was the dance floor built to look like the deck of a ship—complete with sails and netting, nautical lanterns and a tiki masthead—it was actually built from a ship. According to their history page, it’s made with parts from the S.S. Forester, an old schooner that made trips from San Francisco to the South Sea Islands.

The setting and decor are unquestionably awesome, but the food is widely considered to be bad. Most folks advise to go during happy hour, but we weren’t able to be so choosy with our time of visit so we took our chances with dinner and I actually was pleasantly surprised.

I ordered a mai tai, of course, but I wasn’t all that hungry so I got the mussels with Portuguese sausage, Maui onions and shoestring potatoes. The broth was made with Kona Longboard lager and it was so savory that I had to sop it up with the bread.

I also nabbed the miso eggplant from Mr. Baseball’s plate of flatiron steak, which was doused in a sort of sweet sauce that we enjoyed but not might be to everyone’s tastes. It will be such a shame if the hotel’s plans come to fruition because the Tonga Room is just on another level, definitely one of the top tiki spots I’ve been to thus far.

The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
The Fairmont San Francisco
950 Mason St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
415-772-5278

Tonga Room on Urbanspoon