Thatch Tiki Bar

“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”

John Hiatt
The Tiki Bar is Open

Vintage Bottle

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

 

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. alan bluehole says

    I’ve been twice for drinks and was impressed. The owner spent some time talking with me as I’d “met” him on the tiki boards on the web. I’m looking forward to the food . . .

  2. Food Dude says

    My dad used to take me to the Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills. Didn’t the Benson downtown used to have a TV? I’m going to have to put this on my short list of places to visit.

  3. greenandgreensalad says

    Perhaps it should also be mentioned that Robert, the owner of Thatch also owns Pour, the wine bar a couple doors down. We’ve been looking forward to Thatch for awhile and can’t wait to try it out based on the reviews. Consistently good choices in décor, food, and drink and all around nice, informative guy.

  4. Food Dude says

    Wow.. went here for the first time last night. Fun place! The mai thai happy hour drinks are deadly! Great place.

  5. tahiti69 says

    Nice Write Up!

    Since your post they now have more drinks on the menu which according to the owner, “the version 2 of the drink menu is out and about. It includes the Zombie, the Tonga Punch, the Tiki Punch and bartender Ernie’s own creation, the very stiff Donkey Punch.”

    yowzaa!

  6. Mary Ann says

    This well written article brought back fond memories of happy times at a Kon Tiki in a large midwestern city. Now I am eager to visit Thatch and have a Zombie.

  7. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Ok, I’m naive. Just googled “donkey punch” to see what the fuss is about.

    Really wish I hadn’t.

    Probably won’t be ordering that one next time I visit Thatch.

  8. Long straw says

    I went the other night and enjoyed the Volcano. The menu recommends at least three people share this bowl of beverage. Yum and ridiculously fun. I also sampled a Chi-Chi which is even better. However, it was hard to get past the greasy smell that met us at the door and the cigarette smoke wafting in from the sidewalk. It was also very warm inside so hopefully by summer there will be some circulating air. This lively review may get me to go back and try something else.

  9. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    I agree about the circulating air problem. A few people mentioned this to me after my review, and I did notice it last time I was there. I like tropical, but I don’t think many of us like swampy. Hopefully they will do something about that soon.

    Also, I did hear that they are planning on fixing up the front area soon with new signage and hopefully something that will encourage the smokers not to linger right at the front door.

  10. G-man says

    My wife and I finally made it to Thatch the night after St. Patrick’s day. We had wanted to go for quite some time and really looked forward to it. All I can say is I dig the hell out of that little bar! Because it was just after St. Patricks, it was pretty dead, but that made it all that much better as we had a pick of seats and were able to gawk without looking like geeks. It’s like a miniature Tonga Room right here in Portland. We had mai tais and I recall little after the second…or maybe it was the third. But if your really into tiki bars, this one is a lot of fun.

  11. EH says

    I read this review as it was posted in the comments on the tiki blog Tiki Central. When foodies and tiki fans crossover, it’s a great thing! Nice review, really captures why we love tiki bars so much. We were also trying to guess the city that the author was referring to from her childhood. Want to give us a hint?

    A couple of other things – the cocktail waitresses at Thatch wear very nice outfits, if you know what I mean.

    Also, something not in the review – a bunch of the Tiki stuff there came from the old Jasmine tree mentioned in the article and the long out of business Kon-Tiki here in Portland.

    catcha later,

  12. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Ok, here are your hints: The City’s bad nickname is “the mistake on the lake” and it’s in a State where the unofficial motto is “high in the middle and round at the ends.”

    I’m sure google can help you out there.

    Sadly, I think all the original tiki bars there are now closed.

  13. Bubbles McGee says

    I was there for cocktails this past weekend, and by 8:00 there was a line to get a table. The drinks were great, and (as promised) STRONG. The atmosphere was fun and the decor was amazing. The menu looks tasty…I look forward to trying it!

  14. Sir Loins says

    Finally visited this place and it is one cool-looking joint inside. In regards to CB Femme’s comment that it’s “1950s Chinese/American bar food, done well,” well, I agree with the first part.

    The food is costly for what it is (and for what you actually get), and having gone with friends and sampled the Pu Pu Platter and two entrees among us, I heartily recommend eating elsewhere, if dinner is in your plans.

    Stick to drinks, which are tasty and not overly sweet, as others have pointed out. No fluorescent liquids will be found in your coconut mug either, which is a big plus.

    However, one thing surprised us: We were there for a long time on a recent weekend night, and we were surprised to see that the crowd was mostly 50-somethings. Also, just about everyone who walked in the door that night (besides us first-timers) seemed to be a regular. I’m just mentioning this because we all were expecting a younger crowd, or at least more of a mixed-ages set.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Thatch isn’t crawling with 21-year-old hipsters, but it felt at times like we’d stumbled in on Uncle Morty and his pals getting sloshed. For what it’s worth, they’re all a pretty friendly bunch.

  15. pdxwineoh says

    I’m not surprised Sir Loins found Thatch crawling with 50 somethings….They, after all, had the benefit and the luxury of being dragged along in their best-pressed pinafores to accompany their parents to a 3-hr, 3-lava bowl, post WW2 luau-style dinner, as befitting your 1950′s special occasion. Think Tonga Room at the Fairmont, San Francisco, and you know what I’m talking about.

    And what wasn’t a special occasion back then? “Back Then”, Men knew how to dress for dinner. If I see one more guy coming into my restaurant wearing flip flops with his jeans, well, I’m gonna bust a nut.

    Thatch, and every other well done Tiki Bar, should be raking in the dough as this is a chance for the boomers with money to relive their childhood, and pay homage to their parents, which, once they (parents) are gone, means alot.

    And yes, they are a friendly bunch, as you will someday discover, happiness peaks around age 60. Flip-Flops not required.

  16. Food Dude says

    Funny, I was thinking about Thatch this morning. I’ve been there a few times, and it does tend to be a 35 and older crowd, but that’s just fine with me, since I fit the ‘older’ range. I like the place a lot, though I also tend to go somewhere else for dinner first. Love the bartender – he’s the type of guy who’s seen it all, tells it like it is, and probably has a bat hidden under the counter.

  17. Kris says

    Thatch totally reminded me of sitting at the Polyensian restaurant with my parents munching on beef teriyaki which I had heated up over the sterno flame while watching them down a few scorpion bowls.

    I liked the fact that it’s not too loud, their waitstaff are friendly, and I could get a mai-tai made with vodka. (Yes probably not considered a real mai-tai but rum gives me a headache something fierce).
    I wouldn’t have dinner there, but if you need something retro greasy to wash down the drinks with, the crab rangoon are pretty good.

  18. Sir Loins says

    pdxwineoh,

    “If I see one more guy coming into my restaurant wearing flip flops with his jeans, well, I’m gonna bust a nut.”

    I feel your pain about flip flops in restaurants, but if you “bust a nut” over the next dude who walks into your place wearing them, he’s gonna think that you are *really* happy to see him. However, such an, um, unique reaction may actually scare him off for good, which is probably what you want in the first place.

    Kris,

    Regarding your vodka-for-rum switch, you must have the magic touch. When the lady sitting next to me at Thatch politely asked for a Chi Chi made with tequila instead of rum – she told the bartender she loves tropical drinks but doesn’t like rum – he politely but firmly insisted on making her a daicquiri with tequila instead.

    It didn’t sound like a weird request to me, but she didn’t get what she wanted. Later, she told us that the tequila-for-rum request always stops bartenders in their tracks, and that this wasn’t the first time someone wouldn’t make it as she liked.

  19. phoenix says

    I like thatch, been there twice and had great drinks and great service, the only downfall is the place smells like old grease. Hope they fix that.

  20. Dawn says

    They don’t advertise it, but they have some T-Shirts to sell for $20. The best part of the shirt is the alcohol warning on the back with a pregnant Tiki Goddess.

  21. kittykill says

    I’m glad that everyone loves the place since my husband built it and one of my good friends is the bartender. The “air” problem is because of what the “thatch” is treated with so it doesn’t go up in flames. Last I heard they were trying to work out the air flow situation. I bet the lady that wanted tequila instead of rum also thinks Jimmy Buffet is tiki.

  22. Emily says

    Thatch is a great little place, and I consider myself lucky to live within walking distance.

    If the owners are reading this, my only slight criticism of the decor is that you can see the doors to the bathrooms through the windows of the “hut” in the back of the bar. Hanging some beads or shells in the windows might fix that up. Overall, I love the atmosphere of the bar. It’s very intimate and has fun things to look at everywhere, once your eyes adjust to the dim light. I really do feel transported when I walk through the door.

    The “chi chi” is my favorite, lots of coconut and vodka, but maybe it’s the cute little coconut cup that makes drinking it so much fun. The other drinks are also great. They use the good booze and don’t skimp. I’d like to see at least a couple of other vegetarian options on the pu-pu menu, but at least there’s the spring rolls. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying their meat.

    Overall, Thatch is a great place, and I’ll be back again and again.

    P.S. I thought the air was fine. Maybe all the fire-retardant new materials just needed some time to “off-gas” a bit.

  23. DinahDavis says

    I agree with everyone that the chi-chi is the standout drink, and I’m a rum lover. (Well, I like vodka too, but we’re talking Tiki here.) The food is OK, and the flaming pu-pu platter is a hoot, no doubt.

    On the two times I visited this past spring, the air inside was OK, but I could have done without the smokers cluttering up the front door.

    I was hanging with the usual gang of forty-fifty somethings, and we were the oldest group in the place. Everyone else, with the exception of the bartender was in the “show me your ID” range. Maybe pdxwineoh just stumbled upon a unique evening.

    I get tired of the way people in Portland dress in nice restaurants too. I don’t care what you where at the local fast-food swill joint, but if you’re going to a good restaurant with good service, you should dress accordingly. Not anything as formal as a suit, mind you, I’m being realistic, but most folks can do better than raggedy, cut off denim shorts that have never been washed, flip-flops and an ugly t-shirt with something obscene or offensive on it. (Yes, I have seen that kind of ensemble in the best restaurants in town. Shudder.) Yes, I know, this is not the East Coast, but c’mon Portlanders, don’t be such SLOBS!

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