It’s tiki time.
During the recent heat waves, the promise of tiny umbrellas in our drinks and a fondness for tiki ambience drew us to the Kona Club in Oakland. The moment we walked into the bar on the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Pleasant Valley Road, we left the heat and traffic behind and entered a unique world full of surfboards, glass floats and blowfish lamps.
Coming in from the light, one cannot help notice the change: it’s always twilight at the Kona Club. But it’s all the better to see the volcano behind the bar and appreciate the mechanical hula dancer who begins undulating at 5 p.m.
We’ll get to the drinks in a moment, but first a few notes on the décor, which represents only a small part of owner Doug Miller’s private collection of tiki trappings. (Miller most recently opened The Tap Haus in Berkeley’s Southside. He also owns The Mallard Lounge in Albany.) The walls and ceiling are festooned with all things tiki: bamboo, woven grass wall coverings, the aforementioned blowfish lamps hanging down near the bar, boards, paddles, hand-carved wooden tikis and outrigger canoes suspended overhead. Observe the striking velvet paintings, the fishing nets and their glass globes both big and small — all there, and then some.
We’d noticed the Kona Club — located on the former site of the King’s X — for years, but had never gone inside. The popular watering hole, in existence since 2005, is the site of one of the oldest bars in Oakland. According to The San Francisco Chronicle’s Chip Johnson, the previous bar was open before prohibition and stayed that way for long afterward. In an article bemoaning the closure of the beloved King’s X, Johnson cited an urban legend about the site, which alleges that “the upstairs tenants made bathtub gin during the Prohibition Era when the building was used as a sewing machine shop.” Quite a transformation into today’s Polynesian-themed public house.
The weekday evening we visited the Kona Club things were just a little quiet at the bar, but Chris the bartender told us that the crowd typically “ebbs and flows” over the course of any given night. He told us about Monday game nights, when the bar offers a variety of crowd-pleasing options. There’s a pool table in the back, with seating at tables in the front and side room, and plenty of barstools.
Of course, the tiki drinks are the most popular, but Chris also told us about the classic cocktails and the seasonal drink menu listing ideas submitted by the staff (“what we like to drink”) that changes every three to four months. We made a note to return once fall is officially upon us to see what’s new on the menu.
Our choice of cocktail, The Undertow (Mt. Gay Silver rum, Cruzan coconut rum, fresh passion fruit puree, guava nectar and a splash of orgeat, $8; pictured above), arrived with a small amber giraffe as a garnish. We noticed glasses full of these little animals behind the bar: a fun twist on embellishments. The combination of tropical ingredients and the presentation of this cocktail made it a winner. It’s cool and refreshing, with just enough balance between the rum and the fruit flavors.
As a service to its patrons, The Kona Club menu kindly provides a guide for customers who may want to gauge the amount of alcohol in their drink choices: check the number of blowfish next to the cocktail you desire (“more fish, more booze”). The Little Red Corvette, for example, warns (or boasts) three fish. It’s a potent mix of The Botanist gin, dry vermouth, Campari and lavender bitters, served up with a lemon twist ($9). For reference, the Undertow earns a “two fish” ranking. Crowd favorite Macadamia Nut Chi-Chi (vodka, macadamia nut liqueur, crème de coconut and pineapple juice, $9) is also a two-fisher.
Our companion opted for the Kilauea (Mt. Gay Silver rum, fresh crème de coconut and strawberry puree, “blended to perfection,” $9) which came garnished with an elephant and a small umbrella. Delicious, refreshing, smooth, with a gentle kick and the flavor of the islands, the drink was blended perfectly, as promised.
From the smoking volcano to the over-the-top décor to the quintessential tiki cocktails, The Kona Club is an experience not to be missed.
The Drink: The Undertow
The Vibe: Tiki ambience, where all are welcome. Has the feel of a neighborhood bar with lots of regulars and an aloha spirit
To Try Next Time: The Mac Chi-Chi
The Crowd: Game players, fun seekers, Tiki aficionados
Good to know: Hours are 2:00pm-2:00am, seven days a week
Don’t miss: The volcano behind the bar
The deets: Kona Club is at 4401 Piedmont Ave. (at Pleasant Valley Road), Oakland. Connect with the bar on Facebook.