“Thank God the tiki bar is open
Thank God the tiki torch still shines
Thank God the tiki bar is open
Come on in and open up your mind”
The Tiki Bar is Open
My own experience with tiki bars began early, and my love of the tiki bar has been with me ever since. As a young kid from a very cold and snowy climate, my family would often take “mini vacations” by checking into a nearby hotel for the weekend just to get the hell out of the house during the worst part of the frozen tundra like winters. We had two requirements: 1. The hotel needed to have an indoor swimming pool for the climbing-the-walls cabin fevered kids, and 2. There had better be a good restaurant and bar for the equally, if not more so, stir crazy parents. These were often hotels that had bars like the Port-of-Call with its dizzying tropic décor and stunning porthole windows that looked into the deep end of the hotel pool. Or places like the Kon Tiki, located in a Sheraton Hotel downtown, where a six year old fascinated by a Shirley Temple served in a ceramic hula girl mug could scare herself silly staring at the giant and imposing tiki statues who seemed ready to pounce to life at any moment. Plus hearing the words Pu-Pu Platter would send us kids into absolute hysterics until we became quietly mesmerized by the flames shooting up from the dish as it was brought to the table. We certainly never had anything this fun during dinner at home. So it all equated that while my family could not afford to fly somewhere warm and tropical to escape the dreary and icy sludge, we could at least pretend.
Yet, from the outside, on a generic block of NE Broadway, Thatch gives no hint that you are about to enter into a make believe tiki paradise. At first glance Thatch looks like some thrown together suburban dive bar. There is no enticing or pronounced sign in the plain dark windows, nor much that is even noticeable besides a large tin can filled with sand and cigarette butts next to the front door.
Cross through the entrance however, and over the wooden footbridge with the large shell water fountains, and you are magically transported onto a Polynesian fantasy island. A place where the colored puffer fish lights cast a rosy hue that instantly makes pale and pasty Portlanders glow; where the bamboo and grass thatch paneling perfectly mutes any loud or abrasive noises from the busy street out front; and where the mighty cocktails, kept watch by looming tiki gods and sexy island girls in black velvet paintings, turn even the most bored or grumpy into happy tropical vacationers.
Thatch already feels like a classic, and has gathered tiki memorabilia from places both well known and some almost now forgotten, were it not for the most fervent tiki fanatics among us . Tiki memorabilia at Thatch includes large authentic wooden tiki statues, an outrigger canoe over the bar, the aforementioned puffer fish lamps, and other good stuff like velvet paintings, wooden bird cages, shells galore, and of course lots and lots of thatch.
In keeping with authenticity, and true to the era when Tiki bars rules the land, Thatch has also acquired original and comfortable bright orange booths and chairs designed by the well known architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis who contributed to that unique American space aged architecture style known as Googie. Add to this mix a sunken bar, and a light background of Martin Denny, Esquivel, or other vaguely ethnic mid-century exotica music, and it all makes for a tiki experience that is a loving and true homage to the real deal.
Powerful, Potent, and Polynesian
Décor and transformative atmosphere aside, Thatch makes some beautiful, tasty, and strong cocktails. Don’t scoff at the price of the drinks which are in the seven to eight dollar range. A couple of these babies and you’ll wish there were some hammocks suspended from the ceiling for a much needed nap before heading on home. Options outside of normal well drinks, beer, and wine include all the classic rum, pineapple, citrus, and coconut concoctions such as the Mai Tai, Fog Cutter, Blue Hawaiian, and one called a Chi-Chi. This is where Thatch shines, and unlike most other bars that serve tropical frou-frou, cocktails here are well balanced between sweet and sour, and are made with high quality ingredients including fresh juices, with some including house made liquors such as Orgeat or a subtle Blue Curaco as served in the Blue Hawaiian. Most come with one of those cute paper umbrellas with a pineapple chunk and a maraschino cherry. It’s all quite festive. Although one complaint is that the Chi-Chi is the only drink that comes served in a cute vintage ceramic coconut mug that keeps drinks colder than in a glass, and frankly these are also much more fun to drink from. Perhaps as Thatch gets more established they can add some other ceramic tiki inspired mugs to the mix. Future plans do include homemade spiced rum and some yet to be determined signature cocktails.
Regardless, the care and attention to detail continues in the food offerings. Do not expect fussy modern fusion cuisine here. Nope, this is just plain old 1950s inspired Polynesian/old school Chinese/American bar food, but done well. Things like fried shrimp, cold Chinese BBQ pork slices, egg rolls, marinated meat skewers, and crab Rangoon made from the classic recipe of wonton wrappers stuffed with cream cheese and crab that are deep fried into perfect little tasty pockets. These are one of the few crab rangoons I’ve had anywhere that actually have a decent amount of real crab in them, and it makes a tremendous difference.
A great option for a shared table is the Pu-Pu platter that includes a sampling of all the appetizers served on a beautiful wooden compartmentalized lazy susan tray, and true to form, has a miniature flaming hibachi grill in the middle for the meat skewers. Warning though, pull these skewers off the hibachi sooner rather than later, or they may stick, making for all kinds of frightening fire hazard maneuvers in order to release them from the grill. All the sauces are fine too, with an interesting creamy coconut and ginger, and far above average plum and teriyaki. Thatch is even thoughtful enough to layer the ceramic sauce tray with cooked rice so that the little sauce cups don’t slide around and spill.
The Legacy of the Tiki
The history of the Tiki Bar is an essential part of American popular culture and spread out from California to include tiki bars over the globe. Once numbering in the thousands, and building in popularity from the 1930s, tiki bars had their heyday after WWII through the late 1960s. This was due in part to the nostalgia and new found tastes of returning servicemen from the South Pacific, a national craze for “Hawaiiana” culture after it became the 50th State in 1959, and the American love of all things boozey during that era of the martini lunch and standard pre-dinner cocktail hour. While some, like Trader Vic’s, served high end food in a tasteful and hushed atmosphere, many tiki bars were outrageous, wild, and vaguely sexy and naughty with their half naked hula girls and topless Polynesian lady paintings. They were also sometimes completely over the top with flaming torches in the parking lots, Vegas style theatrical floor shows, live parrots and other animals, and even giant smoking volcanoes. Some, like the still going strong Tonga Room in San Francisco, had elaborate fountains and fake lagoons with floating band stages, and regularly scheduled tropical “monsoon” rain storms. It is also widely thought that Tiki bars had such an appeal because they allowed an exotic, albeit safe and relatively affordable, few hours of escape from the button tight new suburban world for the dames and fellas of that otherwise outwardly conservative generation.
Thatch looks back and captures that earlier golden era of the Tiki bar before they became victims of changing tastes and lifestyles; before the alcoholics and down on their luck bar flies began to take them over in the 1970s; before the atmosphere was watered down by adding obnoxious Keno machines; or before a whole bunch of them turned into, gasp, sports bars. Sadly, by the 1990s, many of the original tiki bars had closed with a few strongholds such as the Alibi on N. Interstate or several Trader Vic’s locations still holding the torch. Thankfully, tiki bars are once again experiencing a renaissance, and as the diverse crowd at Thatch shows, this is with both young and old alike.
Tiki fanatics are roaming the internet, building elaborate private basement and backyard tiki habitats, forming local clubs, publishing books, and there are even several new Trader Vic’s opening up, including one that recently opened just outside of Seattle. Also, watch out for the 5th annual Portland Tiki Kon 2007 convention this summer, where Thatch will most certainly be at the center.
Thatch has the nostalgia, feel, and wonderful aesthetic appeal of the tiki bar down pat. Furthermore, Thatch is keeping the Tiki dream fresh by taking the time and care to honor this unique historical and cultural phenomenon through authentic décor, attention to detail, and some damn whopping good drinks. As the little birds in the Enchanted Tiki Room sing,
“In the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room
All the birds sing words and the flowers croon
In the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room
Welcome to our tropical hideaway, you lucky people you!”
- Phone: (503) 281-8454
- Address: 2733 NE Broadway, Portland, OR. 97232. Google Map
- Hours: 5pm to 2am daily. Happy Hour 5pm-6:30pm – $5 Mai Tai’s, dollar off well drinks($4)
Takes all major credit cards